Perversion Story (1969)

Have I ever written here about how much I love Lucio Fulci? Oh that’s right — I’ve written about a few of his movies, like AengimaThe Beyond, The Black CatCat in the BrainConquest, Contraband, Demonia, The Devil’s HoneyDon’t Torture a Duckling, The Four of the ApocalypseHouse by the CemeteryA Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Manhattan Baby, Murder RockThe New York RipperSodoma’s Ghost, Touch of DeathVoices from BeyondWarriors of the Year 2072 and Zombi 2. Heck, I’ve even written about The Curse and Zombi 3, films that Fulci just did effects on or quit part way through. Yet I was missing this film — also known as One on Top of the Other — until Mondo Macabro re-released it this year.

At this point in his career, Fulci was mainly known for comedies, so the move to the giallo genre was a major shift. Bava had invented the form only six years ago with his one-two punch of The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace. And Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which would turn the form into a genre all unto itself, wouldn’t be made until the next year. Gathering inspiration from Vertigo, Fulci felt that the script for Perversion Story ranked among his best.

Unlike many of his later films, this movie enjoys a decent budget, with eight weeks of principal photography and location shooting in San Francisco, Reno and Sacramento, including a gas chamber sequence shot at the San Quentin State Prison.

George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel, Belle du Jour) is the protagonist, a wealthy doctor who runs a clinic with his younger brother Henry (Alberto de Mendoza, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh). He’s leading a double life. He’s caring for his asthma-stricken wife Susan, (played by Marisa Mell, just as gorgeous here as she is in Danger: Diabolik and could be the ultimate Fulci girl, as she nearly lost her right eye in a 1963 auto accident, with the distinctive curl of her upper lip the only remaining evidence of the damage) while he’s also having an affair with Jane (Elsa Martinelli, The 10th Victim).

George and Jane travel to Reno for a romantic getaway whole Susan remains in the care of her sister Marta (Faith Domergue, The House of Seven Corpses) and a nurse. Jane confesses that while she loves our hero, she doesn’t see any future in their relationship. There’s an amazing scene here where we watch the lovers from under the bed — Fulci almost shoots it as if the camera is below them and we’re caught in the space between reality and dream, true life and forbidden passion.

When they arrive at a casino, George has a message waiting from his brother: his wife is dead. Returning home to San Francisco, George meets the disapproving gaze of Marta who believes that he has to be behind her sister’s death, as he stands to receive $1 million dollars in life insurance, money he desperately needs for his business. That said, an insurance agent has been following George and Jane and informs police inspector Wald (John Ireland, I Saw What You DidThe Incubus) of his findings.

In the midst of all this scandal, George and Jane get an anonymous tip that leads them to The Roading Twenties strip club, where they meet Monica, an exotic dancer who looks exactly like Susan with blonde hair — shades of Vertigo fed through Italian sleaze! Monica and George begin an affair that may start with him seeking answers but ends with him being seduced. Fulci masterfully frames these scenes with Monica/Susan in positions of submission while obviously being the one in control of every single action that she allows to happen. For someone who would later contribute to some of cinema’s most stomach-churning excesses, this sequence is an exercise in beauty.

What’s striking about Perversion Story is that on the surface, the film seems like its going to be pure exploitation. But even in moments like when we first see Monica at the strip club, she is the only girl on stage clothed. And she appears on a motorcycle, at the time seen as the very symbol of male independence, mastering and dominating it, in complete control of her sexuality. She owns the entire room and every gaze — male and female — within it.

The police arrest Monica — due process be damned in late 60’s giallo — and she informs them that she’s an in-demand callgirl who was hired to pose as Susan by a woman she only knows as Betty. Fulci again stages an incredible looking scene here as the police begin testing the evidence and autopsy, as the screen fills with no less than five different frames all containing splashes of color and movement, a look and feel that Ang Lee would later attempt in his 2003 version of The Hulk. Again, a rare example of constraint by Fulci here, as we only see a hint of the corpse instead of actually seeing viscera.

Benjamin Wormser (Riccardo Cucciolla, Rabid Dogs) comes to bail out Monica, as he is one of her most besotten clients. However, when he arrives at the station, he learns that her expensive bail has already been arranged by someone the police will not reveal. There’s also a great interrogation scene here where Jane conducts a sexually charged photo shoot with Monica, all to learn why his life has been turned upside down. They need to know — who was his wife’s nurse Elizabeth O’Neal and where is she now? This scene sets up everything we expect from the girl on girl seduction scene, yet it’s all in the service of advancing the plot, something usually unheard of in the genre.

As the police search Monica’s apartment, they discover an envelope filled with money and marked with George’s fingerprints. While the femme fatale goes missed, Goerge is arrested, tried and convicted for his wife’s murder. On the eve of his execution, Henry visits and spills the entire plot to him. Monica really is Susan and they faked her death to get the money and leave him to pay for the crime, with the dead body really being the missing nurse. Of course, we already know this, thanks to a bravura scene where Monica sheds her blonde tresses and contact lenses in an airport bathroom, transforming herself into the woman she has always been, Susan. There’s even a POV shot that puts the viewer directly into the role of the customs officer reviewing her passport.

As Henry leaves his brother to rot, George tries in vain to get anyone to listen and Inspector Wald’s investigation comes up short. The only person left who believes in him is Jane. We follow him from his cell to the gas chamber, but it looks like there will be no last-minute reprieve. Or will there be? As the film intercuts between Henry and Susan’s romantic reunion and George being prepared for the gas chamber, the answer reveals itself. Keep your eyes open for an appearance by Bobby Rhodes from Demons as a prison guard!

Truthfully, George is out of control and powerless for the entire running time as the results of her actions. Even the denouement is out of his control — we hear the end of the story from a reporter and none of the film’s heroic figures have anything to do with the close. It’s the film’s most pathetic character that actually closes off the tale.

Perversion Story doesn’t have all of the trademarks of the giallo — multiple on-camera murders, POV shots of mayhem and black-gloved killers. But don’t let that keep you from watching. I can sum this film up in one word: gorgeous. You can really feel the spirit of the late 60’s and pop art in every single frame, making this look and feel unlike any other film in Fulci’s catalog. Instead of splatter and dread, you get longing gazes at Marisa Mell. Trust me — it’s not a bad trade-off. Throw in a jazz score by Cannibal Holocaust composer Riz Ortolani and you have the complete package.

Now, Mondo Macabro has released what they refer to as the longest, most complete form of the movie ever released (Severin released the French version in 2007). Complete with an uncut 108-minute version with English and Italian audio tracks restored from the original negative (with additional scenes provided by a 35mm print), this edition also features interviews with Jean Sorel and Elsa Martinelli, as well as an incredibly insightful commentary on the movie by Stephen Thrower, author of the book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci. Credit where credit is due — this version of the film looks incredible, fully realizing Fulci’s color choices and sumptuous imagery. You can grab a copy yourself at their site or on Diabolik DVD.

Disclaimer: I was sent this film by Mondo Macabro for review and in no way did that impact my review.

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