Little Susie is very young, very pretty, and very evil!
The years 1979 to 1982 represent the greatest creative period in the career of Lucio Fulci, the maestro of Italian horror. He was working with a consistent group of collaborators, including producer Fabrizio De Angelis, screenwriter Dardano Saccheti and composer Fabio Frizzi. These were the years in which Fulci made his best movies: Zombie (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters), Contraband, City of the Living Dead, The Black Cat, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, The New York Ripper and, finally, Manhattan Baby in 1982. That this film appears last in the cycle is no coincidence, as it is the weakest of the bunch and suggests that this fertile period had at last dried up. It’s also the last time that Fulci would work with this same team. All good things must come to an end.
Fulci’s most explicitly supernatural film — by which I mean the one where the characters openly acknowledge the supernatural elements — Manhattan Baby (aka Eye of the Evil Dead) stars Christopher Connelly as an American man vacationing in Egypt, where he has an accident while exploring a tomb and is rendered blind after lasers shoot into his eyes. Lasers gotta laser. He returns to New York with his family and recovers from this temporary blindness, but his two young children (Brigitta Boccoli and Giovanni Frezza, the mopheaded blonde child star of every Italian horror movie) begin experiencing the effects of a mysterious amulet given to the daughter in Egypt. It seems the kids can now open portals into other dimensions with deadly consequences, including killer cobras and killer birds. Fulci gotta Fulci.
Though he’s known for making movies that don’t make a ton of sense, Fulci outdoes himself with Manhattan Baby. There are a number of his usual hallmarks on display, whether it’s openings to other worlds (at least it’s not Hell this time…I don’t think), animals attacking or mutilated corpses, but they’re put together even less coherently than usual. Actually, maybe that’s not true. Maybe the problem here is one of context. When sequences in City of the Living Dead or The Beyond don’t make sense, we horror fans tend to rationalize it as Fucli employing nightmare logic — the narrative disconnect operates the same way that dreams do, and we are powerless to fight against where Fulci leads us just as we are powerless in our sleep. But Manhattan Baby doesn’t have the same nightmare feel. It is, in many ways, a more traditional story. It’s talkier, less dread-inducing and badly paced. The horror elements feel almost like they spring out of nowhere, particularly in the first two thirds of the movie, when the appearance of something shocking or violent actually reminds us that, yes, we are watching a Lucio Fulci horror movie. It feels a little like the filmmaker playing at something more commercial but ultimately unable to avoid his own tendencies, rather than a movie in which Fulci commits to his own artistic vision 100%. Those are the best Fulci movies.
But because he is a born filmmaker and capable of creating truly striking moments, Manhattan Baby still manages to spring to life periodically to be a movie worth watching at least once, particularly for Fulci fans. His landscape shots — primarily the ones in the desert — are beautiful and quite unlike almost anything he’s done since Four of the Apocalypse in 1975. The horror moments, while less indulgently gory than we’re used to, have a jolt to them…though I can’t be sure if that’s because they’re especially well directed or because the scenes that come before and after them are somewhat of a drag. Fabio Frizzi’s score is beautiful and interesting as always, though it unfortunately reuses a number of cues from his score for The Beyond. Even the elements of the movie that are good come with qualifiers, which is what makes Manhattan Baby an often frustrating experience.
Blue Underground brings Manhattan Baby to Blu-ray for the first time in a three-disc special edition that contains an HD copy of the movie on the first disc, a standard def DVD copy on the second and Fabio Frizzi’s score on third disc containing the soundtrack CD. The film has been given a brand new 2K makeover and looks positively stunning in 1080p HD; colors are natural, detail is crystal clear and even scenes containing optical effects have been cleaned of dirt and debris. It’s damn near perfect. Two lossless audio tracks are offered: a 5.1 surround mix and the original mono track. Both are available only in English, but as there was no original Italian track recorded that should come as no surprise. Both tracks are fine in that the dialogue is clear and Frizzi’s score sounds great, but many of these older Italian horror films run into audio inconsistencies because of the fact that they were shot without sound and entirely dubbed after the fact. There are fluctuations in the mix inherent to the source, but Blue Underground’s presentation helps smooth a lot of that out.
In addition to the soundtrack CD, this special edition has a particular focus on composer Fabio Frizzi. Not only is there a nearly 10-minute featurette in which Frizzi and his band (Frizzi 2 Fulci) plays selections from Manhattan Baby live, but there’s also an hour-long interview with Frizzi in which he discusses his entire career, covering all of his collaborations with Fulci and even interspersing additional live performance footage. It’s really great. More interviews fill out the supplemental section: actor Cosmo Cinieri talks about his experiences starring in the movie, special makeup effects designer Maurizio Trani discusses working with Fulci, scholar Stephen Thrower (who wrote literally the book on the Italian filmmaker) talks for about 10 minutes about Manhattan Baby and its place in the director’s body of work and screenwriter Dardio Sacchetti talks very candidly about the movies he made with both Fulci and producer Fabrizio De Angelis. While it’s unfortunate that Fulci himself isn’t found anywhere in the bonus features — he’s been gone 20 years now — the director still feels represented through the stories shared by some of his closest collaborators. The original trailer and an extensive still gallery of promotional art and marketing materials are also included.
It may be among the weakest of his Golden Age period, but Manhattan Baby is still a stronger movie than most of the work that would follow it through the rest of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Some of those movies would end up being borderline unwatchable, while at least Manhattan Baby is an interesting failure that tries to do a couple of different things but comes up short at most of them. That said, Blue Underground’s special edition treatment is so good that it deserves a spot on the shelf of any Fulci fan. This is an incredible presentation of a movie that manages to just barely be ok.