Kind Of Blue Beard… High Stakes And Thigh Steaks In Lucio Fulci’s TOUCH OF DEATH.

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BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

Lester Parsons (Brett Halsey) is so far into the hole betting on horses that he stars answering “lonely hearts” ads taken out by wealthy widows, divesting them of their dough then bumping them off (Jeez, those guys in The Pina Colada Song thought they had problems!) Lester should have remembered that line: “When the fun stops… stop!” Then again, it’s a line which could be as well applied to watching Lucio Fulci films as to gambling…

… unfortunately we here at The House Of Freudstein have sworn a sacred oath to shirk no shitshow when it comes to bringing you the straight poop about Italian exploitation cinema, so here it is – despite public demand – a review of Touch Of Death aka When Alice Broke The Looking Glass (1988), just one of the zero budget clinkers that Fulci cranked out in his declining years for producers Antonio Lucidi and Luigi Nannerini.

We’re introduced to Lester as he digests the news of yet another betting debacle, cheering himself up by cooking up and consuming a rare steak while he watches an introduction tape in which an anorexic, facially disfigured bimbo cavorts for his erotic delectation. You might well think that she didn’t make much of an effort, though she looks significantly better in the tape than she does now, lying dead in Lester’s basement, a raw excision from her thigh making it clear where that steak came from. Having consumed this prime cut and fed some of the remaining choicer morsels to his cat, Lester minces the balance of Miss Lonely Heart / lungs / spleen / liver / kidney / et al and feeds it to the pigs in his back yard.

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Nice disposal job, but the TV news subsequently informs Lester that said mortal remains have turned up in plastic bags on a local tip and the police are investigating. Somewhat perturbed by this turn of events, Lester talks them over with his only confidante, a pre-recorded voice on an audio cassette. Confused? Not as confused as Fulci was when he wrote this thing… come back Dardano Sacchetti, all is forgiven!

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He’s just a gigolo… form an orderly queue there, ladies!

Having offed his next victim – a lady with significant facial hair problems – by beating her hairy face in with a tree branch then microwaving her head (with the oven door open?), Lester elects to do away with the evidence in alternative fashion, burying her in cement on a building site which he conveniently seems to have the run of. This leaves him open to the threat of blackmail by a floridly overacting crusty witness (Marco Di Stefano), a threat he neatly heads off by chasing down this derelict in his car and running it over him…. several times….

… and still the TV newscaster reports that his latest victim’s hirsute remains have been discovered, also that the tramp is recovering in hospital and will provide a fotofit of the perpetrator when he’s sufficiently recovered. Lester continues to consult the voice on the tape which, it subsequently emerges, is that of his shadow. Is any of this making any sense? Like I said, Fulci wrote it so don’t blame me (though I guess it’s perfectly possible that, unbeknownst to me, my shadow had a spectral hand in the script).

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So far (and subsequently) Lester’s victims have been in some way disfigured. Fulci’s comment on superficial societal attitudes / body shaming? A nod to Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946)? A mischievous retort to Argento’s notorious stated preference for beautiful female victims (and its obvious inspiration, Poe’s dictum that: “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”)? Whatever, Lester’s next date, Alice Shogun (?!?) suffers from no such disfigurement… not till she’s encountered Lester, anyhow. Is this why the film is named after her? Who can say? As embodied by Ria De Simone, she’s not a bad-looking woman at all (albeit a little over-voluptuous) though her penchant for performing operatic operas while participating in rough sex (a moral disfigurement?) make her an easy mark for Lester. He takes her corpse out for a drive, looking for an ideal place to stash it, leading to an allegedly comic bit of business with a traffic cop writing him a speeding ticket but overlooking the stiff in the passenger seat.

Every day, the newscasters bring worse news for Lester… that fotofit of “The Maniac” (as the police have imaginatively tagged him) is apparently coming along nicely and Lester’s DNA profile has been identified and announced (though it’s never made clear exactly how one would go about doing such a thing).

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Under pressure from his bookie Randy (an uncharacteristically fresh-faced Al Cliver), our “hero” tries for another big score from hare-lipped Virginia Field (billed as Zora Ulla Kesler but easily recognisable to any self-respecting spaghetti splatter fancier as Zora Kerova of Anthropophagous / Cannibal Ferox / New York Ripper infamy). It’s suggested that she’s a fellow con artist out to give Lester a dose of his own medicine but when she thwarts his attempt to kill her with nutcrackers (?!?) by shooting him, it’s revealed that she was tipped off re his murderous intent by seeing that much-anticipated fotofit on TV… and of course when we finally to see it, it bears no resemblance to Halsey whatsoever! Lester staggers off into a corridor and, before pegging it, exchanges a few rueful philosophical observations with his shadow… nothing like as rueful as the viewer, contemplating 80 wasted minutes of his life that he / she will never be able get back.

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Touch Of Death is unquestionably the work of a Pasta Paura maestro who’s gone more than a touch beyond his prime… it was conceived in conjunction with a season of movies under the “Lucio Fulci Presents” banner, attempting to evoke Dario Argento’s successful La Porta Sul Buio (“Door To Darkness”) series from the mid-70s (or even his rather less successful Turno Di Notte / “Night Shift” from the late ’80s) while simultaneously making a virtue of necessity in that the deregulation of Italian TV was closing most of the country’s cinemas. Were these films actually intended for sale to Italian TV? Their shared “shot on video” aesthetic suggests the possibility but could such violent fodder ever have stood a realistic chance of playing on the box? Perhaps Fulci intended Touch Of Death as a toast to the brave new world of commercial TV from a poisoned chalice (the cinematic equivalent of The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues?)… whatever, this and the film that Fulci shot virtually simultaneously with it (the woeful Ghosts Of Sodom), along with Hansel & Gretel (co-directed by Fulci and Giovanni Simonelli in 1990), Mario Bianchi’s Don’t Be Afraid Of Aunt Marta aka The Murder Secret (1988), Leandro Luchetti’s Bloody Psycho, Enzo Milioni’s Bloody Moon and Andrea Bianchi’s Massacre (all 1989), promptly disappeared, only to be filleted for footage by Lucidi and Nannerini to pad out the astonishing atrocity attributed to Fulci and entitled Nightmare Concert (aka A Cat In The Brain) that assaulted such Italian cinema screens as remained standing in 1990.

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The individual films have emerged, piecemeal, via obscure fly-by-night video releases (they’re also viewable on Youtube, for those of a hard-core masochistic bent)… a proposed Synapse release of Touch Of Death was abandoned when no original elements could be located and Don May’s outfit declined to source it from video. For the sake of unfussy Fulci completists, Shriek Show, Red Edition and others put out ropey looking DVD editions in the first half of the noughties. The BD release under consideration here looks pretty good (as well as this movie, in its original  4:3 aspect ratio, is ever going to look on your state-of-the-art widescreen telly, anyway) and 88 claim to have remastered it from an original negative. It would have been nice to see something in the bonus materials or liner notes about the film’s restoration, but no dice. The notes comprise Calum Waddell’s entertaining and informative interview with “Al Cliver” (Pierluigi Conti), whom he tracked down in Bali, while on the disc you get Phillip Escott’s documentary featurette Reflections in a Broken Mirror…

… in which (mostly) assistant director Michele De Angelis and Marco Di Stefano reminisce about the making of this movie. Cue the familiar anecdotes of Fulci singing happily to himself on set when not chewing out tardy collaborators. De Angelis confirms that the complicated co-production deal which made these movies possible ensured that very little money actually trickled down to the set. We also learn more about the up-and-down relationship between Fulci and Argento during pre-production of the Wax Mask that Fulci never lived to make and the claim that Fulci’s diabetes-related death was actually a suicide pops up again. Loose accusations are thrown around that “certain people” could have done more to prevent this from happening. We’ll never know the full story and it’s profoundly sad that Fulci’s amazing career should wind down amid such unedifying disputes.

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DP Silvano Tessicini makes a decent first of passing a Roman suburb off as Florida, though his indoor shots display all the finesse of a drunken camcorder record of Christmas Eve. Carlo Maria Cordio’s score is weedy, straight-out-of-the-library stuff. Only editor Vincenzo Tomassi remains from the glory days, though he has very little to work with here.

Touch Of Death is often described as being influenced by American Psycho, though it actually predates that film (2000) and also Bret Easton Ellis’s source novel (1991). For that matter it also anticipates, to a certain degree, Jonathan Demme’s Silence Of The Lambs (1991), although of course with the meagre means at his disposal, Fulci was never going to come up with anything remotely as polished as those. Nor was he able to he do justice to those influences which he attempts to reference, several superior pictures including Robert Siodmak’s  The Spiral Staircase (1946), Jack Smight’s No Way To Treat A Lady (1968), Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970) and his own The New York Ripper (1982). The film’s pitiful stabs at black comedy fall flat on their arses (I admit I laughed when Lester kicked the cat) and Angelo Mattei’s clumsy splatter FX (the surname should have tipped us off), delivered without a fraction of the expertise and elegance which Giannetto De Rossi previously brought to such proceedings, are merely revolting. In the light of these failings Touch Of Death represents a wasted opportunity to definitively address the “misogyny” chestnut that plagued Fulci throughout his career.

Having thought long and hard about it, I’ve managed to find two things I could say in favour of Lucio Fulci’s Touch Of Death. Firstly, it’s not The Ghosts Of Sodom. Secondly, it’s required viewing for anybody intent on unpicking the splatwork quilt that is Nightmare Concert / A Cat In The Brain… which Herculean task we’ll be attempting soon.

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