Next to Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci is unarguably one of the giants of Italian horror. His extraordinary Gates of Hell trilogy – City of the Living Dead, The House By the Cemetery and The Beyond – are still as simultaneously beautiful and terrifying as they were on their first release in the early 1980s, The Beyond alone undeniably one of the greatest horror films of that decade full stop.
By that stage of his career, however, Fulci had already earned his horror stripes with his earlier work in the giallo subgenre, the Hitchcockian thrills of 1969’s Perversion Story (also known as One on Top of the Other) soon giving way to more excessively violent and flamboyant experiments in the category such as A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin in 1971 and the vicious Don’t Torture a Duckling the following year, his controversial The New York Ripper in 1982, and his peculiar giallo/Flashdance mash-up Murder-Rock Dancing Death in 1984.
Beginning his career as a screenwriter and then a director focusing primarily on comedies, with Perversion Story Fulci comfortably demonstrated his skills as a filmmaker adept at working across different genres. The film’s affection for Hitchcock’s Vertigo is worn proudly on its sleeve; centred around a beautiful woman and a doppelganger-centric murder mystery, if that’s not enough the film also lavishes in its San Francisco setting (with one scene even shot on location in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison). Riz Ortolani’s ear-worm score sets the swinging tone for the film as its action spans from glamourous photo shoots of scantily clad models to pop-art infused go-go bars.
Perversion Story follows the plight of Dr. George Dummurrier, played by giallo regular, the French actor Jean Sorel. He and his brother Henry co-own an expensive medical clinic, and George is able to tolerate the coldness of his sickly, distant wife Susan thanks to the comfort provided by his mistress Jane (Elsa Martinelli). When Susan dies at the beginning of the film, its seemingly natural causes are revealed to have a more sinister explanation. George becomes the main suspect, his confusion only heightened when he encounters the voluptuous and sexually liberated Monica Weston, who just happens to be the spitting image of his dead wife (both parts played by cult superstar Marisa Mell of Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik fame).
In true giallo style, Perversion Story is riddled with twists and turns until the truth is finally revealed in typically sensationalized style. The film rightfully remains a classic of the pre-Argento giallo period of the late 1960s; not only for Fulci’s apparent love for stylish, over-the-top vignettes (Monica Weston’s introductory strip scene has to be seen to be believed), but because of the gleeful velocity with which the film merrily skips along in its telling.
Perversion Story is the perfect introduction to this important yet often overlooked aspect of giallo history before Argento would almost become synonymous with it with his Animal Trilogy of the early 1970s (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and his later 1975 Italian blockbuster, Deep Red. Widely considered to originate with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963 (note again the strong influence of Alfred Hitchcock), it was surely Bava’s Blood and Black Lace in 1964 that consolidated its iconography. The later ’60s would see a preliminary burst of gialli like Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah and Umberto Lenzi’s Orgasmo in 1969 (both starring Carroll Baker) and significant highlights such as Elio Petri’s 1968 film A Quiet Place in the Country, but it is Perversion Story that most succinctly – and enjoyably – encapsulates all the elements of late ‘60s giallo before Dario Argento would appear and virtually rewire the category from the ground up.
EDITOR’S NOTE: New York’s Quad Cinema is presenting a screening series of six restored gialli from July 19-25. Read Maitland McDonagh’s For the Love of Gialli for an overview. The program includes:
The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire
The Fifth Cord
Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion
Strip Nude for Your Killer
Please click on the titles for AWFJ’s full reviews of the films.