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Retro Review: AENIGMA (1987) and DEMONIA (1990)

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AENIGMA
(Italy/Yugoslavia - 1987)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Giorgio Mariuzzo and Lucio Fulci. Cast: Jared Martin, Lara Naszinski, Ulli Reinthaler, Kathi Wise, Riccardo Acerbi, Sophie D'Aulan, Jennifer Naud, Mijlijana Zirojevic, Dragan Ejelogrlic, Lijlijana Blagojevic, Franciska Spahic, Dusica Zagaric, Lucio Fulci. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Having exhausted everything there is to say about Lucio Fulci's early '70s gialli and his trailblazing 1979-1982 gore galore glory days, cult film scholars have reached the point in Fulciology studies where it's time to begin re-examining his much-maligned late-period of 1986-1991. Peak Fulci came to a close after his falling out with producer Fabrizio De Angelis during the making of 1982's underappreciated MANHATTAN BABY, but he did some decent journeyman work on 1983's CONQUEST and the 1984 films THE NEW GLADIATORS and the FLASHDANCE-inspired slasher MURDER ROCK. Health issues kept Fulci sidelined through the rest of 1984 and all of 1985, and 1986's erotic thriller THE DEVIL'S HONEY was the start of what's considered "latter-day Fulci." Aside from gory throwbacks like 1988's ZOMBI 3 (which he left midway through production, citing health concerns, and the film was finished by an uncredited Bruno Mattei) and TOUCH OF DEATH and 1990's meta, self-referential CAT IN THE BRAIN, this period was almost completely dismissed by all but the most devout Fulciphiles. Other than THE DEVIL'S HONEY turning up in US video stores in 1991 as DANGEROUS OBSESSION, none of these later Fulcis made it to America until the post-2000 Eurocult DVD explosion after years of only able to be seen stateside via bootlegs and gray market means. But as the '00s kicked off, all of the late-period Fulci titles began appearing on DVD, courtesy of labels like Shriek Show, Image Entertainment, and Severin. And for the most part, they were as bad as we'd heard during that previous decade where they were difficult to see. None of these films are essential Fulci, but some indeed have their charms and deliver the gory goods, even if they lack the polish and financial backing that he was getting during his heyday. A pair of these later Fulci titles--1987's AENIGMA and 1990's DEMONIA--have just been given 4K restorations and are out on Blu-ray from Severin (because physical media is dead), and while neither are where any Fulci newbie should begin their exploration, they're both worth second looks for the die-hards.






Playing like a bizarre mash-up of CARRIE, JENNIFER, PATRICK, and Dario Argento's PHENOMENA, AENIGMA opens at the fictional St. Mary's College in Boston--though at no point does this Beantown look like anything other than Sarajevo, where this Italian/Yugoslavian co-production was shot--with a group of students, along with lecherous gym instructor Fred (Riccardo Acerbi) plotting a cruel prank on shy, awkward Kathy (Mijlijana Zirojevic). This results in Kathy being run over by a car and left brain-dead on life support at a local hospital, where she's looked after by neurologist Dr. Anderson (requisite American export value Jared Martin, best known for his recurring role as J.R. Ewing nemesis Dusty Farlow on DALLAS). Meanwhile, new transfer student Eva (A BLADE IN THE DARK's Lara Naszinski, niece of Klaus Kinski) gets settled into St. Mary's as she recovers from a nervous breakdown, though she soon becomes a sort-of psychic conduit of Kathy who, with the help of her occasionally glowing-red-eyed mother and school maid "Crazy Mary" (Dusika Zagaric), uses Eva to enact vengeance upon her tormentors.






When you think of Lucio Fulci set pieces, you probably go to the shark vs. zombie clash or the eye-splinter scene in ZOMBIE or maybe the intestine-barfing or drill-through-the-head scenes in THE GATES OF HELL or the razor blade-through-the-nipple bit in THE NEW YORK RIPPER. AENIGMA offers its own memorable sequence with the awesomely gross "death by snails" suffered by Virginia (Kathi Wise), who's eventually covered head-to-toe by snails and slugs in her bed. Fred is attacked by a double that materializes out of a mirror where he's admiring himself and his death is written off as a heart attack, while others are killed by a statue come to life or decapitated, or thrown from a window. Eva--enacting the desires of the comatose Kathy--seduces Dr. Anderson, and their constant fooling around makes Eva's roommate Jenny (Ulli Reinthaler) a third wheel. That is, at least until Eva has another breakdown and gets committed, after which Dr. Anderson starts sleeping with Jenny. Almost all of the characters in AENIGMA are varying degrees of shitty, with horrible teacher Drop Dead Fred and lecherous would-be sugar daddy Dr. Anderson really lowering the bar on male authority figures one should be able to look up to.


AENIGMA isn't top-shelf Fulci by any means, but after many years away from it, it has its entertainment value, even if some if it comes in the form of unintentional laughs, be they the Yugoslavian prop team's attempt at Massachusetts license plates, a shot of a miniature cityscape that could pass as a Lego "Antonio Margheriti Action Playset," the theme song "Head Over Heels" being listed as "Head Over Meels" in the opening credits, or a poster of Yoda on Jenny's wall demonstrating that Fulci really had his finger on the pulse of dorm life for late '80s American college girls. There's also the clarity of HD revealing oopsies like the timing of a red-filtered light during an overhead shot of an oil-slicked Martin/Naszinski sex scene offering a view of Naszinski that's perhaps a bit more proctological than anyone intended. But as it stands, AENIGMA is a not-bad second-tier offering from the waning days of Italian horror. It was produced by corner-cutting Ettore Spagnuolo, who spent most of the second half of the '80s trying to turn Harrison Muller into an action star in films like THE VIOLENT BREED and GETTING EVEN. Spagnuolo managed to get known names at cheap prices, like Henry Silva for THE VIOLENT BREED and Richard Roundtree for GETTING EVEN, but despite his visibility on DALLAS and other American TV shows going back to the late '60s (with requisite stops on FANTASY ISLAND and THE LOVE BOAT), Martin, who didn't even stick around to dub himself, wasn't enough to secure any kind of US distribution deal for AENIGMA, which didn't legitimately appear in America until it was released on DVD by Image Entertainment in the summer of 2001.







DEMONIA
(Italy - 1990)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Piero Regnoli and Lucio Fulci. Cast: Brett Halsey, Meg Register, Carla Cassola, Lino Salemme, Christina Engelhardt, Pascal Druant, Grady Thomas Clarkson, Ettore Comi, Michael J. Aronin, Al Cliver, Isabella Corradini, Paola Cozzo, Bruna Rossi, Paola Calati, Antonio Melillo, Francesco Cusimano, Lucio Fulci. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Like AENIGMA and most other latter-day Fulci, DEMONIA was a staple of the bootleg VHS circuit in the '90s, finally getting a legit US release when Shriek Show released it on DVD in 2001. It was lumped in with the generally dismissed stretch of product that Fulci was cranking out, like THE HOUSE OF CLOCKS, THE SWEET HOUSE OF HORRORS, and what most consider his worst horror film, SODOMA'S GHOST. And like AENIGMA, time has been kind to DEMONIA while still being unquestionably lesser Fulci. Much of that is due to the presentation on Severin's Blu-ray, which really makes both of these films look better than they ever have. Both have that sort-of "gauzy" look that was common with a lot of Italian horror of that time, particularly the product coming off of Joe D'Amato's Filmirage assembly line, but DEMONIA's outdoor scenes--the film was shot on location at Sicily's Capo Bianco and at the San Pellegrino monastery in nearby Caltabellotta--really benefit from the 4K restoration and help at least those portions of the film look a lot better than most of the stuff that was being bankrolled by budget-conscious producer Ettore Spagnuolo.





A frequently nonsensical mix of Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH, Marcello Avallone's SPECTERS, with a little of John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, with some bonus nunsploitation thrown in for good measure, DEMONIA deals with a team of Canadian archaeology students led by Prof. Evans (veteran American actor Brett Halsey, a late-period Fulci regular at this point after THE DEVIL'S HONEY and TOUCH OF DEATH) on a dig in Sicily. The locals, led by pissed-off butcher Turi (Lino Salemme from the DEMONS movies), don't want them there, but they proceed with their work anyway. The dig has a profound effect on student Liza (Meg Register), who takes part in seances (a shout-out to Catriona MacColl's character in THE GATES OF HELL) and believes in all manner of psychic hooey despite Evans reminding her that she's a scientist. Liza explores the dig on her own and finds a walled-off crypt with the skeletal remains of five crucified nuns. Lilla (Carla Cassola), the local medium--doesn't every superstitious village have one?--fulfills her Basil Exposition duty by informing Liza that in 1486, the five nuns were accused of holding orgies and committing deviant sexual acts in the nunnery after making a pact with Satan, prompting the villagers to crucify and execute them. The spirits of the five nuns now seek vengeance on the town and have established a psychic connection with Liza, which somewhat thematically ties it to the Kathy/Eva situation in AENIGMA. Various gory deaths ensue, including an Evans rival (Fulci stalwart Al Cliver of ZOMBIE, appearing here long enough to get spear-gunned by a topless apparition) whose decapitated head prompts an investigation by the local cops, represented by Lt. Andi (Michael J. Aronin) and his boss Inspector Carter, played by none other than Fulci himself in a prominent supporting role (dubbed by Robert Spafford) that gives him more screen time than his usual cameo.


DEMONIA has a lot of atmosphere in the foreboding catacombs and Fulci even breaks out a Steadicam for a show-offy tracking shot at one point. He also doesn't skimp on the gore--highlights a woman's eyes being clawed out by possessed cats and a graphic wishboning of one of Evans' team--though the shoddy effects are pulled off by the aptly-named Elio Terribili. Co-written by Fulci, Piero Regnoli (BURIAL GROUND), and an uncredited Antonio Tentori (CAT IN THE BRAIN), DEMONIA drags a bit in the middle before all hell breaks loose, and even taking the dubbing into account (no one voices themselves, not even Halsey, who's dubbed by Ted Rusoff), the performances seem stilted and awkward. That's not helped by scenes that drag on without going anywhere--there's a lot of padding to get DEMONIA to feature length, especially the time-killing way Aronin's Andi hems and haws in his prolonged and ultimately pointless confrontation with Halsey's Evans, then Fulci just cuts away and never wraps it up--and Salemme's character is underdeveloped, as Fulci kills him off before the villagers raid the excavation site with torches like an angry mob from an old Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie.


Halsey, who was groomed as a leading man back in the '50s but went to Europe in the '60s after it never panned out, remained a busy character actor who found himself back in Italy in the late '80s, appearing in three Fulci films (four if you count recycled footage in CAT IN THE BRAIN), along with others by the likes of Jess Franco, Antonio Margheriti, Luigi Cozzi, and Bruno Mattei, and the same year he starred in DEMONIA, he landed a supporting role as the second husband of Diane Keaton's Kay Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART III. Despite his long career in Hollywood and abroad, Halsey's name, like Jared Martin's with AENIGMA, wasn't enough to secure any interest in DEMONIA from US home video distributors, nor was Fulci's by that point. Though he looked better here than in his haggard appearance around the time of AENIGMA, Fulci's health would soon take another downturn. He only made two more films--VOICES FROM BEYOND and DOOR TO SILENCE, both in 1991--before being sidelined by diabetes and other related medical issues. He attempted a comeback when it was announced that he would write and direct THE WAX MASK, a HOUSE OF WAX redux produced by Dario Argento, but he died at the age of 68 shortly before production began in 1996. Argento handed THE WAX MASK off to Italian FX master Sergio Stivaletti, with a dedication to Fulci in the opening credits.


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