Written by: Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Dardano Sacchetti
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Giovanni Frezza
At the top of his game, Lucio Fulci was an undeniable genius of horror. Watching Gates of Hell for the first time on a dreadfully crunchy old VHS at two in the morning alone at my parents' house with the lights off was the last time I can remember that a movie really, genuinely terrified me. The late hour, the darkness, a fatigued mind and the movie's relentless weirdness came together perfectly to produce one of the most unsettling viewing experiences I've ever had. As a result, it's my personal favorite of Fulci's work. I've watched it many times since, in various settings, and of course it's lost most of that power, but certain moments still send a little chill up my spine.
On the other hand, some of his lesser movies can be divisive. Tonight's movie, for example; some people love it just because it's Fulci and despite the fact it doesn't make a lick of sense, it's fun. Other people think its strengths are far too few and its weaknesses insurmountable. I can understand both sides, and while I can't argue that a single negative thing said about it isn't completely true, I can't help but enjoy it in spite of itself. “Well how bad can it be,” you may ask. “After all, Italian horror movies aren't really supposed to make any sense, right?” Well, kind of. But even the unreality of the most surreal ones makes a kind of internal sense. Ok, a priest hangs himself because he wants to bring about Armageddon for some unknown reason, and that unleashes a plague of brain-punching zombies that can teleport around town at will. Thing is, the supernatural doesn't make any sense to begin with, so you can just sort of make shit up as you go along and it's not really breaking the rules, because the rules went out the window the second the maggot hurricanes blew into town. If, on the other hand, there was a scientist character in Gates of Hell who popped up every ten minutes or so to contradict everything that was happening on the screen, and the script launched a new subplot every reel or two that never got resolved, that movie probably wouldn't be nearly so well regarded as it is either.
Norman Boyle is a doctor of something in New York City. Don't you worry about what, it doesn't matter. His boss, Professor Mueller (Fulci himself, pulling a Hitchcock – or perhaps more appropriately in this case, a Franco), tells him he's being sent to Boston to continue the researches of his colleague, Dr. Petersen (Doctor of shoe repair? Astrophysics? Competitive snail racing? Again, we don't know, and will never find out.), and if he could maybe figure out why Petersen killed his mistress and then himself, that would be nice too. Wait, was Petersen in Boston to do research or fuck around on his wife? The answer is apparently both yes, and don't you fucking worry about it. Both his wife, Lucy, and his upsettingly Aryan son, Bob, are none too keen on the idea. Lucy just gets general bad vibes from the whole endeavor, but Bob has a more concrete reason. Norman has a picture of the old mansion they'll be staying at in Boston hanging in their apartment, and while everyone else just sees a creepy old house, when Bob looks at it there's a young girl about his age standing in the window looking very afraid.
Norman won't hear a word against the move, though, and soon enough the family is unpacking boxes in Boston. Bob meets the little girl from the picture, named Mae, and befriends her shortly after they arrive in town. However, no one else can see her, and it starts to seem like maybe she's not quite so corporeal as Bob thinks. Lucy's bad vibes start getting considerably worse once they're in the house, and when she uncovers a sarcophagus lid built into the living room floor, things start going really sour. The name on the sarcophagus lid is Jacob Freudstein, which is the same name the real estate agent kept mentioning in the office when they were signing the papers, and the name that Norman keeps turning up in Petersen's researches (whatever the hell those might have been). More than one person has mentioned that the Freudstein and his wife aren't buried in their marked graves, and implied very strongly that at least Jacob might not be buried anywhere at all. Of course, we've known from the first scene that there's some kind of melty-faced turd monster with a butcher knife hiding in the basement of that house, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's Freudstein hanging on to some unholy semblance of life. Apparently it does take one to write a coherent ending to this story, though, and unfortunately for the audience, Fulci didn't have his genius hat on that day.
I'm not even going to try to explain all the nonsense that goes on in this movie, because it's making my brain hurt thinking about it. Suffice to say that there's a bunch of supernatural horseshit involving Mae and Mary Freudstein (oh, don't tell me you didn't see that coming), who are apparently ghosts and “save” Bob at the end by taking his spirit to wander around New England with them, or some fucking thing, and superimposed over the final scene the quote, “No one will ever know whether the children are monsters or the monsters are children,” attributed to Henry James but in fact fabricated by Fulci to account for Jacob Freudstein sobbing like a toddler in the basement throughout the whole movie. Because it's deep, I guess. And that's what I meant about playing by the rules earlier. If your monster is based on science, don't muck everything up with a bunch of unexplained supernatural hokum. It's dramatic oil and water. You can't play by real world rules and ghost rules at the same time, and if you try, your audience get migraines and get angry with you.
That's doubly true if the science stuff is so cool. Ok, Victorian era mad scientists are nothing new in horror movies, but when Fulci adds his unique flavor it becomes, if not exactly new, at least novel enough to be very enjoyable. Freudstein was kicked out of the medical community back in the 1800s for tampering in God's domain, and discovered some way to renew his cells by consuming fresh ones from his victims. Thing is, if you're 200 years old, you have to consume an awful lot of fresh flesh and blood even to keep basic bodily functions operational, never mind looking even remotely human. Hence, melty-faced turd monster. Of course, when one thinks melty-faced turd monster eating people to stay alive, one automatically wants to call such a thing a zombie, especially when the man making the movie is known primarily for zombie flicks. I would like to make the case, however, that this is in fact Fulci's vampire movie. Even more specifically, I think it's a partial (and possibly unintentional) remake of 1957's The Vampire.
That movie also featured a scientist who, albeit unintentionally, transformed himself into a melty-faced turd monster who had to consume fresh cells from human victims to replenish his own deteriorating body. Obviously this was Freudstein's goal as opposed to an unforeseen side effect, but beyond that the core of the story is the same. Ignore all the ghost crap, and the comparison becomes a lot closer. Zombies, of course, never have a reason for eating flesh (with the brilliant exception of Return of the Living Dead) – it's purely an instinctive feeding action. Vampires are the ones who actually need the substances their victims provide. And then there's the fact that Freudstein is in full control of at least most of his faculties. I'm sure spending the better part of two centuries as an ambulatory pile of sewage has unhinged his mind more than a little, but he more or less knows what he's doing. Only a rare few zombies have ever shown that capacity, and it's a product of re-learning through repetitive training, not slowly deteriorating scientific genius.
Beyond the interesting monster, Fulci didn't totally shit his pants on this one. There are a few moments where his flair as a truly talented director come through. The scene where Bob is exploring the basement of the house and a pair of glowing eyes glares at him from every shadowy corner he turns to is very effective, even if it must be part of the supernatural goings on because Freudstein a) doesn't have eyes, and b) doesn't give any indication at any other point in the movie that he has the ability to teleport himself into air vents or alter the volume and shape of his body at will (although being made of rotten poop, I'm sure he's a good deal more malleable than your average slasher). Also, there is a simple but brilliant camera trick at the end, when Freudstein has Lucy and Bob treed at the top of a ladder. Lucy pushes Bob ahead of her and tries to defend him, but Freudstein grabs her ankle and drags her back down the ladder. Fulci cuts between a shot of Lucy sliding down the ladder, banging her head on every rung, and a POV shot with the camera being pulled down the ladder away from Bob and bouncing off every rung, making the image shudder and blur like Lucy's vision must do. It goes on a couple of cuts too long, like several other things in the movie that would have had a lot more power with less lingering, but it's still a very cool shot.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Fulci horror movie without the trademark gore, and there are some doozies in this one. Plenty of body parts and guts lying around Freudstein's basement lair, a very squirty neck stabbing (one of the instances in the movie where the lingering camera makes it more effective the longer the scene drags on), a bat that apparently contains as much blood as several small dogs, and what surely must be the most thorough throat slashing in horror history.
Your mileage will vary depending on your willingness and ability to ignore the unresolved subplots and the absolute refusal of the scientific and supernatural elements to mesh. With a few more script drafts (of which I'm not entirely convinced there was even one in this case before they just started making shit up during the shoot), and a tighter focus on whatever the hell research Boyle and Petersen were supposed to be doing in connection with Freudstein's immortality process, this could well have been one of Fulci's undisputed classics. As it is, it's a wildly uneven but entertaining flick that delivers buckets of the red stuff, and if you temper your expectations accordingly, I think you'll enjoy it as much as I do.