So this is billed as Lucio Fulci's "masterpiece," and supposedly so out there and wild and psychedelic that we need to fortify our fragile little minds, and... well, I just didn't get it. I don't see why this is much different that several of Fulci's other films, and it seems a lot less structured and fun than his Zombie (while having comparable gore and killings), or Aenigma, or City of the Living Dead.
We open in Louisiana of 1927, at a hotel which is more like a big house, on the swamp (not in a town). Upstairs in room 36 a man works on a large painting of a barren surreal landscape where human figures are turning into stone. Downstairs, a woman we will come to know as Emily is doing incantations and looking at a book titled Eibon, while outside a bunch of men are coming with torches to rid themselves of the demonic power. They come in, bust into his room, and I'm like: "It's a MUSTACHE POSSE!" I want to be confronted by a mustache posse. In fact, the most lingering effect of this film on me is the introduction of the concept of the mustache posse, which has informed my thought in the subsequent days. The leader of the mustache posse calls the painter dude a warlock, and swings a chain at his face, which gouges out the side of his cheek. Hmm, pretty powerful chain! Then they take him downstairs and crucify him to the wall, then pour acid on him, and we have long lingering shots of the guy melting as we hear disco-esque 70s music. Decompose to the beat!
FLASH FORWARD to 1981, in which we find that the hotel has no fallen into the hands of the lovely Liza, who wants to have it fixed up to serve as a tourist magnet for those people interested in staying in remote swamps. She's barely introduced before a painter sees eyeless Emily in a window and falls to his doom. She's got contractors coming by to spruce the place up, including Joe the Plumber, who proves to be a rough bearded hunk of horny early-80s virility that just might set certain hearts aflutter. He goes down into the basement, where he encounters Martha, the hostile help. She's just got some bee in her bonnet over something, but still there's a lovely close up of Joe's hirsute face as he gazes appraisingly at her, as though imagining his pipe screwing snugly into her socket. They are soon joined by Arthur, required simpleton, and soon Joe is breaking into a hidden room in the back, which we know was the site of the disco decomposition. He breaks a hole through a wall, and is greeted by a demon hand right to the face, which sticks a pointy finger into his eye, popping his eyeball out and to the left.
We suddenly cut from that to this abstract composition of a highway across open water receding into the distance, which raised my hopes that this movie might continue really arty and surreal. Liza drives her car at us, then drives straight up to Emily and her trusty German Shepard, standing right in the middle of the road. Emily is blind, wearing these whitish contacts that look like marble, and she tells Liza that she's been waiting for her. Liza seems to find little unusual about this, picks Emily up, and soon they're fast friends. Meanwhile, Martha finds Joe literally puking up his guts in the basement, a sight that leaves her strangely unmoved. It takes a lot to rile these people up, okay? New friends in the middle of the highway, service contractors internally liquefying--let's not overreact to every little thing. Martha turns her head to see a decomposed human body rising out of a pool of murk and, well, just another day at the hell portal.
SPOILERS > > >
The decomposed body, as well as Joe's body, is taken to the office of the fellow whom I came to refer to as Stache M.D. We introduce Joe's wife and daughter, an intriguing turn, as we usually don't meet the immediate families of casual horror movie victims, but Joe will prove to be a lingering presence. We also see our plumbing man-hunk shirtless, although unfortunately as a mangled corpse. Stache M.D. leaves mom and daughter, who is about twelve, alone in the room, and you're like "Woah, young daughter seeing Dad's disfigured corpse. Those Italians sure have some interesting child-rearing ideas." This soon proves to be the least of the young girl's worries, however, as she's soon taking in the sight of her mother's face decomposing under a steady stream of acid. I suspect there are going to be some lingering mental health issues for this child. Then--and this whole concept was so freakishly scary I have to give this movie props--the child retreats as the red foam of her mother's decomposing face spreads across the floor. Yep, she's having a tough day. She ends up cornered by the foam by the freezer, which pops out a man's frozen corpse. Screen goes black, we never gear from the girl again. I suspect if we were to try to decode all the thinly-veiled sexual meanings behind all of this we would arrive at conclusions that are not at all fit for a family-focused website such as this one.
More yak-yak with Liza and her new best friend Emily, and by now you're starting to suspect that this movie was shot with Italian actors speaking English, but with all voices dubbed, which lends to the surreal effect, as their lips match their words, yet the voices we're hearing are clearly not from them. Emily tells her the whole history of the house, while you're still asking yourself "Isn't it STRANGE to find your new best friend in the middle of a highway?" But perhaps Liza is simply more trusting than I am. Perhaps it's MY issue. They find the painting from the beginning of a tearful puppy adorning black velvet, and also the one with the barren hellscape, which causes Emily to bleed upon touch. So Emily is this good spirit who comes through the ages, or something, to fight he bad spirits in the basement. Or something.
Meanwhile Liza's male friend decides to go do some research at the local library, and finds out some history about the site, which he chooses to peruse from his perilous perch atop the ladder. He has a nasty fall, and the library is soon revealed to have a serious tarantula infestation, as the little buggers come trotting out to greet him, and are soon ripping apart his face with their pincers, which is rendered in meticulous detail. Back at the hotel, Martha finds the bathtub in 36 clogged by the mother of all hairballs, and soon Joe is popping up out of the muck to say hi and also impale her head on a nail, popping her eyeball out.
So by now things are touching on the tedious, and I was bored. Emily brings her dog by and encounters the painter dude from 1927, and the dog attacks him, then her, and eventually it all comes to this zombie showdown in the hospital, by which time I was barely paying attention, and finally Liza and friend break through the wall in the basement to enter the hellscape of the painting, truly having passed into the beyond. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
So while it wasn't bad, it seems about average for a Fulci movie, and I don't see what's so special about it to make it his masterpiece. It has notable gory setpieces, but then again, so do all of his movies. Perhaps this one is a bit more coherent, but no more so than Zombie, and the story is nothing special, familiar from many horror films. And because there is virtually no plot, it's just a series of killings caused by the hell portal in the basement, meaning there's nothing in the way of character or story to keep one intrigued.
That said, the setpiece with the little girl gradually getting hemmed in by the gory foam created by her mother's dissolving face is a total winner, genuinely bizarre and creepy and simmering with all sorts of psychosexual implications, to the point that it might be worth watching the movie just for that. Otherwise, perfectly fine and, I suppose, toward the better end of the Fulci spectrum, but nothing to write home about. But if you feel your life is lacking in eyeball-based horror, this one might be for you. You see, there's something for everyone.
If you like gory portal-to-hell movies with little plot.