The Psychic (aka, Seven Notes in Black) (Lucio Fulci, 1977)
Stunning Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill) experiences troubling visions of a violent murder in the abandoned mansion of the Italian businessman and once infamous playboy (Gianni Garko) she has recently married, leading her to pull down one of the walls and find a body… which is just the beginning, as she digs deeper and begins to understand that her visions aren’t just of events past, but have twisted into ominous premonitions of future murders to come.
With its exceptionally clever plotting and admirably ambitious use of the supernatural ‘visions’ conceit (having Virginia, for instance, overturning a fallen bust statue on a mantelpiece to retrieve a letter because she saw it that way in her vision of the future and knows the letter is there, meaning she’s acting in the present in a way to match what is to come, is one of those thoughtful philosophical ideas that operate on the level of the best of a sci-fi time travel tale), yet while told visually in a relatively (for Fulci anyway) subdued fashion, it’s interesting to consider that this was the first film collaboration between now legendary Italian gore maestro Fulci and the screenwriter of many an Italian genre pic Dardano Sachetti (who worked with, along with Fulci, the very greatest cinematic luminaries of the field, such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava himself), especially when considering the wildly elliptical rides into lurid surrealism that were to come between them.
If The Psychic reveals anything within Fulci’s oeuvre, it’s that he was more than capable of handling a tale with a complex narrative, and that his work’s rejection of narrative concerns (with the helping hand of Sachetti) in order to prioritize much more garish visions of the nightmarish and the grotesque, was entirely deliberate; not a failing on the part of the filmmaker at all.
While I grew up loving the more celebrated and audaciously nutso entries of Fulci’s work, like the aforementioned tripped-out and crazed gorefests The Beyond and City of Living Dead and of course the gut-munching, infamously eye-piercing thrills of Zombie as well as the gory gialli like Don’t Torture a Duckling it’s been only in the last half-decade or so, catching up with his up-until-recently harder to find works, such as the his powerful condemnation of patriarchy and religion, Beatrice Cenci with the director managing to elevate its period-piece torture-proceedings to an almost spiritual level, as well as his fascinating study of sexual perversity, _ The Devil’s Honey_ and now taking another – even more appreciative – look again at The Psychic (otherwise known by the far greater – and narratively clever – title Seven Notes in Black), that has cemented for me what a truly great – and underrated — filmmaker Fulci is (or was, whatever).
Perhaps it’s the morbid quality that permeates in his work (and I don’t mean just when he’s leering unabashedly at an extreme act of violence) that is unsettling, even off-putting (at first, for some). He isn’t attempting an exciting visual eroticism, or to be a flying ballerina of violence, that, say Argento is. The vision of Fulci is closer to the earth; to the muck, shit and death. He presents that which is abject [I can’t believe you wrote this Doug, ed.!].
There is only one scene of sensational violence in the film – an opening suicide. It’s a startlingly harsh and cruel moment that the director used (to just as great effect) in Don’t Torture a Duckling, but in that one it’s played as the just deserts of the exposed villain. Here, the incident is used to convey what so much of Fulci’s work centers around (and which one wonders if whatever personal demons he may have had didn’t also center around), that being the unsentimental presentation of the debilitating trauma that the world delivers on the Child (with that theme culminating in what I see as one of his greatest – and, for better or worse, most personal — masterpieces, The New York Ripper, a film vilified for its long, unapologetic and hard-to-justify gazing at the physical debasement of women victims – and not done in that erotically charged stimulating Argento way, that’s for sure – but I would argue is ultimately much more about Fulci’s deep-seated despairing and angry misanthropy… that likely stemmed from his own childhood trauma).
Throwing a blanket charge of the films of Fulci (as well as the Italian horror genre of that time) misogynist seems to deny how a large number of them have a female lead trying to ‘investigate’ at their core… and The Psychic is a perfect example. Virginia is clearly imbued with a special power — a kind of ‘sight’ — yet is constantly met with skepticism by the male authority figures around her, including her friend Luca (Marc Porel, a familiar welcome presence on the Italian genre scene at the time), a researcher into psychic phenomena; even Luca’s seemingly happy-go-lucky ‘secretary’ (Jenny Tamburi), in her brief yet narratively important role (as she uncovers a number of clues), is shown as perhaps the most capable and aware of them all at investigating and unlocking the mystery of Virginia’s visions.
Another theme that Fulci deals effectively with in the film, through Garko’s philandering husband and his self-obsessed sister Gloria (Ida Galli), is that of the callous disaffected narcissism afforded the privileged. It’s Virginia’s association with them, and her attempts at ‘saving’ her husband that almost lead to her demise (perhaps somewhat queasily mirroring actress and one-time very young Cover Girl O’Neill’s exceedingly troubled life, as she plowed through nine marriages with eight very rich husbands, all she claimed to have been trying to save, before she herself was ‘saved by Jesus Christ’ – proving that not every ‘being saved’ story has a happy ending).
The Psychic is a really smart, well-crafted supernatural mystery-that-morphs-into-a-horror-film, presented in Fulci’s unmistakable (morbid) style. It grabs inspiration from all sorts of artistic domiciles, from literary (Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart being obvious ones) to cinematic (with Fulci referencing his own work as well as Sachetti reaching into his own bag of previous cinematic tricks), Through it, Fulci manages to prove he’s not all (bloody) show (though I’m glad he’s that too).