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Blu-ray Review: Fulci’s San Francisco Giallo, “Perversion Story” Gets An Upgrade

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 | Blu-ray/DVD

By ROCCO THOMPSON

Starring Jean Sorel and Marisa Mell
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Roberto Gianviti and Lucio Fulci
Mondo Macabro

For many devotees of the giallo film, the Italian crime subgenre begins with Lamberto Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE in 1965, reaching a peak with Dario Argento’s 1970 directoral debut, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci’s 1969 offering, PERVERSION STORY (a.k.a. ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER) hails from the period between these two landmarks—a time before such familiar tropes as black gloves, salacious sex, and straight razors had become part and parcel of the cinematic language of the gialli. Fulci’s jazzy, San-Francisco set riff on Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958) may be worlds away from his flamboyant late-career gut-munchers (ZOMBI 2, THE BEYOND), but this cleverly constructed crime caper sees the maestro concoct a stylistic form that echos throughout  the rest of his filmography. 

Jean Sorel (BELLE DE JOUR) stars as George Dummurier, a wealthy doctor who runs a clinic with his brother, Henry (Alberto De Mendoza) and struggles to connect with his icy, asthmatic wife, Susan (Marisa Mell). While on a trip with his lover, Jane (Elsa Martinelli) he receives news that Susan has died, leaving him as the beneficiary of a one-million-dollar insurance policy. Things seem to be looking up for George, until he stumbles into The Roaring Twenties nightclub and is shocked to see a performance by Monica Weston (also Mell), a stripper who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dear departed ball ‘n’ chain. Did Susan really die? If not, what’s her game?

Though interiors were shot in Italy, Fulci made the most of his first visit to America—using locations from San Francisco all the way to the gas chamber at San Quentin—and Riz Ortolani’s (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) furious, jazz-infused score gamely melds the spirit of the swinging 60s with the air of decadent corruption he was aiming for.  Taking the setting, theme of malleable identity, and the staged murder plot device into account, it’s easy to see why many believe the movie to be a take on Hitch’s 1958 masterwork, but the director himself claimed Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) as the main influence, and really, the film is its own beast. Filled with canted angles and—as Fulci expert Stephen Thrower calls them on the disc’s special features—“impossible shots”, PERVERSION STORY is a bold exercise in style. Take the almost operatic mise en scène of Susan’s death bed, the collage-like use of montage, or the gauzy shot of Sorel and Martinelli making love from beneath their entwined bodies. Fulci’s tells this tightly scripted, perverse story with an expressionistic flair that would come to consume his later works, devouring all sense of rationality and storytelling. Interestingly, his focus on the macabre is largely absent, save for a single scene in which the putrefying body assumed to be Susan’s is exhumed and examined. PERVERSION STORY is a work of experimentation made by an artist in flux, and Fulci’s transition from his early days as a  director of comedies to genre stylist began here. 

Mondo Macabro’s Region-free, Limited Slipcover Edition (with an unlimited “retail edition” soon to follow) presents an HD transfer from the original negative with both English and Italian language tracks. The image is luscious, featuring extra scenes sourced from a 35 mm print, seamlessly color-timed to match the transfer. The disc comes loaded with a twelve-page booklet on the making of the film by Roberto Curti, a stack of lobby card reproductions, and some excellent special features.  These include interviews with Jean Sorel and Elsa Martinelli, as well as the aforementioned Stephen Thrower (author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci) who is a little too kind to the film in some respects, but also proves that Fulci’s works are worth dissecting and appreciating beyond their more prurient or grisly pleasures. All in all, a stellar presentation of one of the classier, glossier efforts from Italy’s foremost goremeister.

Though not as florid as the later LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971) or as impressive as his crackerjack rural giallo, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), PERVERSION STORY marks an important turning point in Lucio Fulci’s career, and is a highly enjoyable crime caper in its own right. Packed with sharp California photography and swinging 60s atmosphere, Fulci’s early giallo is a sly piece of entertainment that looks positively radiant in Mondo Macabro’s new HD transfer. Though not for all tastes, Fulci completists simply must own this disc, and anyone with a passing interest in the giallo in its pre-Argento incarnation will find plenty to interest them here.

Rocco Thompson
Rocco is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and programmer. An avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous, he seeks to bring attention to and recontextualize forgotten or misunderstood films through impassioned study and analysis. His heart belongs to Jason Voorhees, Lucio Fulci, and Elvira. Follow him on Instagram: @rosemarys_gayby