I carry a deep shame that I’ve only just seen a Lucio Fulci film. For a while, my list has had Cat in the Brain – the meta-horror that predates New Nightmare – but had yet to feast my eyes on the flick whose cover art adorns Reddit’s horror haven, Dreadit: L’Aldilà.
And what a feast it is. Zombies, killer tarantulas, violent pets and omniscient forces all come out to play in a film I’m still mortified to have only just realised is a heavy influence on most of the horror I grew up with. The POV shots of the formless gust of evil was lifted straight into The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi cited Fulci as the influence), and the eyeless perpetrators of a final-act bloodbath in Ted Geoghegan‘s We Are Still Here, along with Joe the Electrician losing an eye in the basement, are nice little homages to Fulci’s zombies and Joe The Eyeless Plumber. (Though Geoghegan himself has cited Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery as ‘the ultimate influence’ on his film. From the description, it’s not hard to see why.)
I’ve read complaints online that the film is surreal and hard to follow, but I found the plot easy enough: Liza (Catriona McCall) inherits a crumbling, Deco-era hotel and sets about making plans to restore it. But then a bunch of weird shit starts happening, including bleeding paintings, visits by a creepy blind woman (Cinzia Monreale), and a mysterious room that’s off-limits.
There’s gore-a-plenty, in what I quickly recognise as a signature style: slow, steady closeups turn to macro-photography, victims transfixed in terror, and the inventive use of anything in sight to bring about the most delayed, agonising deaths. Fulci’s trademark seems to be nixing the eyes straight away: whether popped by arachnid fangs, crunchily scooped out by a demon or glazed over by pre blindness, our director is clearly determined to make sure those windows to the soul remain shut.
Yet the gore never feels over the top, because it’s all so beautifully-photographed. In any other lighting, a lynch mob throwing a caustic substance on a suspected male witch would look too much like the Malteaser I regretted letting melt in my mouth at the time. But you (ok, me) don’t realise how much good lighting, colour and direction go a long way. In a sequence in which a mother and a daughter walk down a morgue hallway, the alternating patter of their quadrem footsteps is simply but rhythmically-timed.
It’s not all perfect, though. Typical of much giallo, its most glaring flaw is the horrifically bad dubbing. For those who wouldn’t have watched this with subtitles, is bad American dubbing better? It doesn’t even stop at the obviously-Italian supporting cast – lead McCall starts tripping over her own English accent by the end of the film’s second act.
But it all melts away like a grieving widow’s brain cavity under a dripping flask of acid when you look at the movie as a whole, of its time and of its style. Upon its release, it was banned unless significant gore cuts were made; it was on the ‘video nasty’ list in the UK before being re-released uncut and remastered in the mid-’90s. To me, all the way in 2016, it’s a gloriously gruesome opera that doesn’t shy away from utter carnage.