Monday, November 22, 2010

L'Aldilà (1981)

"It's the most fascinating game: life, death," says Lucio Fulci. "What is more intriguing than death defied? The dead stay dead in police films and TV shows, but the dead returning from the grave are a beautiful mystery all religions have somehow contemplated. I'm not talking about the slaves of Haiti or some magical tradition, I'm taking about God and religion.
"You have examples of living dead in the Bible or the Koran; stories about spirits returning to their own world, as if refusing whatever future lies beyond death." (Shock Masters of the Cinema, ed. Loris Curci, Fantasma Books, Key West, FL, 1996, p. 68.)Lucio Fulci's 1981 film, (...E Tu Vivrai nel Terrore!) L'Aldilà is about a hotel in Louisiana under which is one of the seven doorways to hell. Liza (Catriona MacColl) has inherited the hotel from her wealthy and estranged uncle and she is determined to fix the old hotel up and make it a commercial success. The doorway to hell, unfortunately, is going to be a hindrance.

The beauty and creativity of L'Aldilà are hidden behind its commercial veneer which often comes dangerously close to obscuring it. Its flaws are legion. As with his previous Zombi 2 (1979), for example, L'Aldilà suffers from an extremely inefficient use of exposition. L'Aldilà begins with a beautifully-shot, monochromatic flashback sequence (photography by Sergio Salvati), set sixty years prior to its present day. During this sequence, an artist living in the hotel is lynched by the locals for being a warlock. He begs for mercy as he warns also of the hotel housing a doorway to hell. His corpse is sealed in the basement. During this opening flashback sequence, a woman is also glimpsed in one of the hotel rooms reading from the Book of Eibon (readers of fantastic fiction should be aware of this allusion), and the book describes the doorway to hell. This woman character later reappears in the present day setting, having not aged at all and now completely blind. Her reappearance is one Fulci's most audacious and powerful compositions: set on one of the long bridges going over Lake Pontchartrain, the young woman stands with her dog, blocking Liza's vehicle from proceeding. [Incidental note: I've just recently driven on the new expressway, erected after Hurricane Katrina, connecting Slidell, La. to New Orleans. I must have driven across this same stretch where this sequence was shot hundreds of times since my youth. Why this shot is so disorienting is during the myriad times traveling it, it has never been empty of cars. The bridge is vast and expansive and is often a bustling thoroughfare. Free from cars, the bridge appears desolate and ominous. The composition of the young blind woman and her animal make them appear as gatekeepers at a crossing. Bridge imagery is very powerful in Fulci's work.] However, the young woman's reappearance is seriously undercut, because of Fulci's poor treatment of her character during the flashback sequence: her face is often obscured behind a book or she is arbitrarily framed in a shot. The only real link to identifying her character are her eyes: from the hazy, monochromatic shot of actress Cinzia Monreale's beautiful eyes to her new ones, totally opaque. As a character's reappearance, the sequence is haunting; but to an initial viewer, it is difficult to see her character as actually reappearing.
David Warbeck plays Dr. John McKay and his character suffers from an annoying flaw typical to horror cinema. As a physician, his character must be exclusively logical and rational in his thinking. Typically, at some point in the film, the character in the horror movie who keeps insisting that there is a rational explanation for escalating horrific events, eventually accepts the source of the horror (as in L'Aldilà , yes, there is a gateway to hell and yes, it is blown wide open.) Warbeck's character goes way beyond the threshold of acceptance: almost until the end of the film, he still is incredulous, despite everyone, including the viewer, seeing otherwise. Not to forget to mention the pacing in L'Aldilà : Warbeck's character has plenty of time to investigate the odd goings on, because the overwhelming majority of the film is one long build-up to its ending, punctuated at times by a seriously over-the-top gore scene. As a piece of traditional horror cinema, L'Aldilà is clearly daft and clumsy and fails at several levels (exposition, characterization, and pacing.)
But I rarely see films this way. Here is Fulci's description of L'Aldilà :
"What I wanted to get across with that film was the idea that all of life is often really a terrible nightmare and that our only refuge is to remain in this world, but outside time. In the end, the two protagonists' eyes turn completely white and they find themselves in a desert where there's no light, no shade, no nothing. I believe, despite my being Catholic, that they reached what many people believe to be the Afterworld.
"I'd like to emphasize that I wanted to make a completely Artaudian film out of an almost inexistent script by Sacchetti and working with me was the same crew that had done Zombi 2 and which did my other five so-called 'historicized' films: Salvati as director of photography, Franco Bruni as cameraman and Lentini as architect. An extraordinary crew! Also, we got on marvelously with Fabrizio De Angelis, a producer from the Fulvia film Company, who concerned himself solely with how to sell the film in the best possible way. He never came bothering us and left us free to do what we wanted; that's why I was able to make this Artaudian film, harking back also to an old western of mine: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu: tempo di massacro, a western that went beyond time and space." (from Spaghetti Nightmares, ed. by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Fantasma Books, Key West, FL, 1996, p. 60.)

Perhaps not lost in L'Aldilà is Fulci’s sensitivity to detail with his creativity. The film truly begins with a painting. The artist, holed up in the hotel until the lynch mob descends upon him, is putting the finishing touches on his canvas. It is only during the final sequence of the film that the viewer recognizes the landscape in the painting. Also, it only becomes clear during the final sequence of the film what happens to the characters when they witness this landscape. The artist in the initial sequence, however, seems untouched by what he is recreating with his painting (this is an amazingly provocative yet obscure concept towards artists). There is a scene when the young blind woman, who reveals herself to Liza as Emily and is portrayed by Cinzia Monreale, senses the painting near her. She cannot see it but is aware of what it depicts; and when she touches it, her hands begin to bleed. A warning? A brilliantly creepy scene follows later when Emily is confronted by visitors out of the doorway to hell. A hellish stigmata? A symbol for those who have been touched by the doorway (Liza’s hands begin to bleed also later in the film.)? The painting is a mystical and cryptic motif, not easily digestible. Rarely is supernatural and fantastic cinema so subtle and sensitive in this respect.
Less subtle yet equally sensitive is the focus that Fulci puts upon his characters’ eyes. Everyone is familiar with the saying that “the eyes are the window to the soul,” and this sentiment resonates throughout L'Aldilà . In fact, Fulci prefers close-ups on his characters’ eyes more than on their faces. What is focal is absolutely not what these characters are seeing--there is a wonderfully-rendered manipulative sequence in a cemetery with a child. When she opens her eyes at the end of the sequence, Fulci’s intentions are revealed.
Fabio Frizzi delivers another amazing score for a Fulci film. As it plays over the credit sequence, it creates such emotion and is more affecting than any gore or scare scene. Cinzia Monreale easily gives the most emotional performance and her character is the most intriguing and attractive. (In fact, Catriona MacColl as Liza is the main character of Dardano Sacchetti’s traditionally-scripted narrative. I prefer to see Monreale’s Emily as the main character of Fulci’s “Artaudian film.”) Interestingly, the violent, gore scenes really show Fulci’s sadistic side: the lynching during the beginning is extremely brutal, punctuated by zoom shots on the wounds. Not to forget to mention that Warbeck’s character hits a crack shot with his pistol to the head of a child--easily the most repellent and violent scene in L'Aldilà ’s final act.

By the way, there are zombies in L'Aldilà . I first saw this film well over twenty years ago on a dupe of a Japanese VHS. I purchased a DVD from EC Entertainment (from where these screenshots are from) over a decade ago. Much better DVD versions have followed in the ensuing years with more supplements and better audio and video. I decided to give the old disc an spin and expected to revisit an old gore classic. L'Aldilà is still that, but over the years, I’ve never appreciated Fulci’s artistry, his contradictions, and his depth and sensitivity. Seeing L'Aldilà today is a totally different experience.