Reviews call this film one of Fulci’s worst films, using phrases like “an impenetrable mess” and “uninspired.” Even the liner notes on the Anchor Bay release say that the film “doesn’t add up.” Woah boy — that would put off anyone else. But me? I’m excited to dig in. Get it? Dig in.
Susie Hacker is in Egypt with her archaeologist father, George (Christopher Connelly, The Norseman, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, the Payton Place TV series), and journalist mother, Emily (Martha Taylor, better known as Laura Lenzi, who was in The Adventures of Hercules II) when a blind woman gives her an amulet. Just as she takes it, her father is blinded while he enters a previously unexplored tomb (but not before he shoots the shit out of a snake).
They return to New York City, where we meet Susie’s younger brother, Tommy (oh fuck, it’s Giovanni Frezza, Bob from House by the Cemetery), who didn’t go on the trip, and au pair Jamie Lee (boy, naming a babysitter Jamie Lee is in no way a coincidence, right? She’s played by Cinzia de Ponti from New York Ripper). Susie and Tommy have somehow gained supernatural powers from the amulet (Susie could speak telepathically to her mother before she left Egypt). And laser beams blast George’s eyes, giving him back his vision.
Check out this brother and sister interaction, Tommy’s introduction to the film. Also, if you’re wondering why a little boy is dubbed with the voice of a small girl, then you’ve never watched a Fulci film before.
Susie also has a scorpion — referred to in the beginning as a symbol of death as George captures it to give it to his daughter as a gift — and is playing with it. Wiler, a colleague, talks to George about what he saw in the tumb.
Meanwhile, Emily is working with her wacky colleague Luke (Carlo de Mejo, City of the Living Dead, The Other Hell, House by the Cemetery) at Time and Life on a story when Jamie Lee calls in a panic. She can’t unlock the kids’ bedroom door and when she tries to enter the room, she sees snakes. Also, we know Luke is wacky because he has on Groucho Marx glasses when we first see him, then he has on googly eyes later. Oh, Luke.
Meanwhile, a security guard is stuck in an elevator. He bloodies his fingers trying to open the doors — thanks, Fulci! — before the floor drops away.
Luke offers to enter the locked door, acting like a goofy magician, when he screams. Jamie Lee runs upstairs but he’s nowhere to be found. That’s because he’s been sucked into a dimensional gateway and is now in the deserts of Egypt, a place where that madcap ponce will eventually die from exposure and dehydration. The funniest thing? Everyone thinks it’s a practical joke. No one ever discusses it again! I mean, Jamie Lee finds a handful of sand in the room and sees scorpions walking all over the place, but all the kids care about is eating dinner. Cue the Fabio Frizzi (who also composed music for Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and more) music! Obviously, this was all some kind of practical joke, right? Why should anyone call the police?
Speaking of that Frizzi music, it plays as we see Susie’s hand begin to smoke and burn her bed. Then, she levitates. Nothing at all strange, please move along!
Jamie Lee then takes the kids to Central Park, where they all take Polaroids — note to millennials, selfies used to take three minutes to develop. A woman finds one of the photos, which ends up being the amulet instead of the kids. She shows the photo to Adrian Marcato (Cosimo Cinieri, Murder Rock and New York Ripper), who puts his name and number on the Polaroid and ensures that the woman gives it to Mrs. Hacker. He’s a mysterious man with a mysterious study filled with mysterious books.
Susie and Tommy have now learned how to go on voyages, trips that allow them to appear and reappear at will. Not everyone is able to do this — Jamie Lee goes on a voyage and never returns. And more weirdness starts happening — George’s colleague Wiler looks at the Polaroid of the amulet and then a snake appears and bites him. We even get an awesome snake POV camera in this scene, which I reacted to with pure, ebullient joy. That same photo teleports into Susie’s hand as she has a fit and collapses. Also — how did Fulci, in a film filled with eyeball symbolism, resist the urge to have the snake bite the old man in the eyeball? What a show of restraint!
Groege and Emily decide to go to Macato’s antique shop, which is filled with stuffed birds. And he’s stuffing another one while talking to them. He explains the evil inside the amulet and how it has now infected their daughter and son.
They find the amulet — and a live scorpion that everyone just kind of ignores — in Susie’s bedroom door. She knocks out all of the lights in her room and appears covered in a blue glow before she faints. Marcato appears and tries to link minds with Susie, but he can’t handle the strain. He falls to the ground, bleeding and foaming at the mouth. He’s able to link minds with George, though, showing him the Egypt that his children have been visiting and tells him that Susie is trapped by the stone.
Susie goes into a coma, where she is examined by Dr. Forrester (Dr. Clayton Forrester? No, but he is played by director Lucio Fulci, listed as anonymous in the credits), who finds a cobra mark in her x-rays.
Tommy is left alone in the apartment, his eyes intercut with Marcato’s, who is concentrating on the amulet (there’s some nice Bava-esque blue to red lighting here, with tight shots of the psychic’s eyeballs). Suddenly, blood pours through a wall and Jamie Lee comes busting through, covered in gore (again, Fucli si really restraining himself here). Susie’s machines start to flatline before she awakens, choking and spitting up blood. Blue light links Tommy, Susie and Marcato’s home as he recites an Egyptian spell.
Marcato tells George that his children are safe. He’s removed the curse and taken it upon himself, so that it will not harm anyone else. He asks that George throw the amulet into the deepest part of the river.
After an entire film of holding back on the geysers of fluid and exploding eyeballs that we know and love him for, Fulci goes insane with the ending. We see shadows of the dead birds come to life before they fly at Mercato, slashing at his face. He mixes in some pecking POV shots and then goes completely over the top with repeated shots and a slowly lifting zoom, mixed with more interwoven POV shots, leaving the antique store owner a bloody corpse. The camera pulls back on a slow jazz song as we see the dead man bleed out and lift high above the store, before zooming to one of the stuffed birds. If I’ve learned anything from a Fulci movie, it’s to never work in a library or antique bookshop, because animals are going to eat your face.
Seriously, this jazz song, it’s like the kind of interlude Billy Joel would play before starting New York State of Mind.
George throws away the amulet, but now we’re back in Egypt, repeating the cycle as another young girl is given another amulet.
Whew. Manhattan Baby was written by longtime Fulci collaborators and husband and wife duo Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti. Originally called The Evil Eye and The Possession (it was also released as Eye of the Evil Dead), they settled on the changed title to evoke Rosemary’s Baby. Even the name Adrian Mercato comes from that film. He’s one of the witches mentioned in the book Rosemary reds, All of Them Witches, as he practiced black magic in the Bramford building and is the father of Roman Castevet. The budget would get cut throughout the film — as much as 75% — so that may be why the gore feels so restrained.
This is the final film that producer Fabrizio De Angelis and Fulci would work on together. Fulci disliked the film and felt that he had no choice but to make it; De Angelis was obsessed by it.
Manhattan Baby doesn’t seem like a failure to me. It makes good use of locations like the faux Egyptian pyramids and market, as well as New York City. And the restraint leads to a great climax. That said — it’s a mishmash of The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Awakening, with a dash of The Birds. Sure, it’s not a great film or even a good one, but it’s an interesting one. And that’s what I want to watch!