An acknowledged, if maligned, poet of the perverse who delighted in peeling back the raw exterior of existence to probe the soft meat beneath, Italian horror film director Lucio Fulci excelled in defying the knee-jerk philosophy of conservative cinema, employing ultra-violent examinations of flesh and mind to study the chaotic bleakness and moral decay below the crust of the politely restrained. With a camera lavishing detail on decrepit images of decay, Fulci displayed in his lengthy if erratic career the ability to force audiences weaned on the laughably rigid morality of Hollywood horror to investigate new possibilities of physical corruption, emotional lethargy, and spiritual decadence – themes largely ignored by directors who lacked the nerve or aesthetic sense required to treat the macabre in any other sense than playfully or with emotional detachment. While his pen and not his visual sense is employed in DEAD FRIGHT, the late master’s sense of pacing, cruel set-pieces, and emotional intensity is clearly evidenced in this erotically charged debacle of psychosis, sexual misplacement, and sado-masochism.
From the morbidly beautiful gothic atmosphere of Riccardo Freda’s seminal I VAMPIRI (which, along with THE MASK OF SATAN nourished the Italian film’s fixation with supernatural imagery), to the barely restrained marriage of eroticism and pain featured in Mario Bava’s later giallo extravaganzas and beyond, Italian cinema has long challenged audiences with reckless honesty and stylistic verve, wading deep within the dark pools of cultural taboo to better contemplate its charnel-house nature. In the chaotic center of triumphant decay, moral ambiguity, and rampant sexuality, Fulci’s cinematic visions were often imbued with fetishistic visions of earthly decadence and supernatural speculation. This is as apparent in his writing for others as in his own odes to the awful.
Despised by censors, reviled by proponents of subtle cinema, and a victim to both the political/economical factions of the day, the true film of horror attempts to inspire thought as well as shocks. Some accomplish this by searching for horror in the seemingly safe everyday instead of the gothic graveyards and castles once so heavily depended on by Italian ghost stories. Finding terror at the breakfast table rather than in some far away villa, Fucli often approached dangerously unstable, taboo subjects in such everyday, uncompromising fashion. The same sort of knee-jerk reactionary paranoia and idiocy that caused so many critics and fans to turn away from him after THE NEW YORK RIPPER because of said film’s all-too-real violence, savaged sexuality, and expose of human frailty is evidenced in DEAD FRIGHT as well - a film that dares to see too deep too far into the decrepit interior of the human mind and heart, roaring face-first into the seething dimension of troubled minds and passions.
Michael (Tony Mussante), a happily (but not too happily) married man breaks his vows after his family wife leave for the in-laws for the Christmas holidays. Wandering around town he encounters the sexy but aging Marie (laura Antonelli), who he had an affair with years ago, and her voluptuous if awkward daughter Jacqueline. The woman from a heated past, Marie might also just be the instrument of Michael’s demise. The excesses of his lust damn Michael when, the morning after their lustful one night stand, Michael is prevented from leaving, forced into an existence of depravity, taught to depend on the women he learns to hate. More disturbingly, and especially fun for the kiddies, is his increasing dependence on, and lust for, the exciting Jacqueline, who is soon competing with Mom for some hot loving! A movie where everyone has a secret agenda as well as the black conscience to indulge it, DEAD FRIGHT is as emotionally scathing as it is repulsive in its sexual associations. Better yet, its daring scenes of sexual friction between the trapped Michael and the adolescent Jacqueline, and the mother-daughter competition for their prisoner’s sexual favors, evokes grudging desire at the very same time that it makes us ashamed of them.
Fulci’s writing and the workmanlike direction evoke pathos and the sordid entertainment expected in an exploitation film. Fulci’s story asks us to think as well as feel, to probe our conscience even as it kicks us in the gut. Using similar sado-masochistic themes and rough-love fetishes employed by Fucli in THE DEVIL’S HONEY, DEAD FRIGHT is intelligent if not inspired filmmaking, superior in story than in acting, production values, or direction. Despite obvious lack of budget or artistry, lacking creative camera movements or compositions, the movie remains a solid piece of genre B-movie making. If the slightly uneventful story appears to lack the movement you’re used to seeing in an exploitation film of this nature, than that’s only natural, for he story is more concerned with internal conflict than physical action, charting the damaged and damaging minds of sex- obsessed, vindictive women whose entire focus become strained on the rascally Michael. On second glance, then, there IS a strong amount of action occurring in the film. Dramatically poignant transformations of character and value systems occur with subtle rapidity, observable only in glimpses between the distracting images of young, supple breasts, lovely dark public hair, and smooth naked flesh.
Offering a unique twist on the standard woman-in-peril movie, DEAD FRIGHT is anything but flaccid. Surprisingly, the only one who suffers guilt is Mussante’s suffering playboy, who lingers closer and closer to death as he is starved, beaten, taunted and brutalized. As much a victim to his own conscience and wrongdoing as the handcuffs which bind him, Michael’s extravagant lust is largely responsible for his misery. Bordering the dangerous line of exploitation and pornography, the sexual moments both suggested and shown between Michael and the daughter tread the fine line between sexual freedom and the truly unacceptable. While certainly not pornography, and while no penetration occurs, the blunt, unflinching sense of nakedness and forced intimacy between the two would never be allowed today, and especially not in an American mainstream movie.
This is a film about the loss of innocence and moral appearance. The loss of a middle-aged woman’s sense of self and decency, the loss of her daughter’s childhood and normality, and Michael’s literal loss of freedom. Even more disturbing, and a brave move by both writer and director, is the exchange of roles that occur between man and adolescent. In a charged moment when the girl mounts an undernourished Mussante, we see a swap of expected sexual/gender roles and expectations; the innocent has become the seducer, and the once confident seducer of women is now dependent on a child wanting to become a woman. While the pain, repressed desires, and eventual rage of Michael’s mistress (Laura Antonelli) is perfectly understandable, somehow we manage to empathize most with his character as he is gagged and bound, whipped and ridden. And when the nymph teenage daughter (Blanca Marsillach) follows in her mother’s fetishistic footsteps, we cringe, wondering just who her father might be. Whew! Heavy stuff.
“Violence is Italian art!” Fulci once proclaimed, and, indeed, it was in the geography of pain – emotional, physical, and spiritual – that the rebellious artist found the ideal aesthetic tools to lend an understandable face to impulses and anxieties defying conventional logic. If this film’s mixture of violence and psychosis is an uneven affair, at least it is a fairly provocative one. No small feet in a genre which too often trades intelligence for spectacle, substance for flash. A minor macabre footnote in the annals of psycho-thrillers, DEAD FRIGHT is a surprisingly mature vivisection of cultural expectation and sexual taboo. Critical analysis aside, the film is exactly what it wants to be - an exploitation movie with violence, suspense, and sexual intensity. An underrated slice of Italian sex and thriller celluloid, DEAD FRIGHT may provoke stiffs but it’s far from dull – a sadly ignored work of sex and sadism!
William P. Simmons
Directed By: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi
Written By: Lucio Fulci, Francesco Barilli, and Alberto Silvestri
VHS (SP) Hi-Fi Stero
110 Minutes / Colour / 1999
Shock-O-Roma / EI Independent Cinema