The Psychic, or Sette note in nero, (1977) is one of director Lucio Fulci’s most underrated films. Released just as the popularity of the giallo genre was beginning to wane, but before the director would begin to solidify his reputation as the “Godfather of Gore” with a string of ultraviolent 1980s horror films, The Psychic is often overlooked or unfairly maligned by critics. In many ways, it is a transitional film, containing elements of Fulci’s earlier gialli (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling) while also gesturing forward to the overt supernaturalism of his later horror work (Zombi 2, the Gates of Hell Trilogy). The first in a fruitful series of collaborations with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and composer Fabio Frizzi, The Psychic sets the tone for much of Fulci’s later work. However, it is also a magnificent film in its own right, deftly marrying occult thematics with the tense pacing of an effective thriller. The plot unwinds across a stunning series of inventive narrative twists that consistently blur the lines between fantasy and reality, madness and sanity. Although lacking the explicit gore for which Fulci is so renowned, The Psychic is nevertheless an engaging, thoroughly unsettling film. It concerns itself primarily with the characters’ often troubled psychological states, a thematic concern echoed in the tenebrous, often disconcerting camerawork of Fulci’s long-time cinematographer Sergio Salvati.
The Psychic follows Virginia Ducci (Jennifer O’Neill), an English woman living in Tuscany with her Italian husband, Francesco (Gianni Garko). After Virginia experiences a psychic vision involving the murder and interment of an unknown woman, she asks her friend Luca (Marc Porel), a parapsychologist, to help her unravel the mystery surrounding the woman’s death. Soon, it appears that Virginia’s beloved husband may be responsible for the crime, and Virginia is catapulted into a world of danger and deception. Like much of Fulci’s work, The Psychic draws heavily on the Gothic literary tradition. Indeed, parts of the plot are taken directly from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” (1843). Both the tone and the narrative also echo the “Female Gothic” sensibilities found in the novels of Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848). As a literary subgenre, the Female Gothic generally features an isolated young woman, devoid of familial support, who is menaced by a powerful, authoritarian male figure. These works are often highly ambiguous, leaving both the reader and the protagonist unsure as to who they can trust. In The Psychic, these Female Gothic tropes become gradually more pronounced as Virginia begins to question her husband’s involvement in the murder and her paranoia increases.
While the cast are more than competent in their roles, with O’Neill skillfully conveying her character’s mounting terror, much of the film’s unease is generated through creative cinematography, lighting and framing. Numerous shots employ contrasting shades of light and dark to evoke a dream-like atmosphere. In one early scene, as Virginia is driving through a tunnel – just before she experiences a psychic vision – the frame is consumed by darkness with only a small pinpoint of light visible at the far end. In this sequence, the landscape is reduced to a small circle engulfed by oppressive shadows. Later, when Virginia visits an art gallery, the camera inventively frames her face silhouetted harshly against a vibrant seventeenth century painting. In both scenes, the starkness of shadow conveys a sense of isolation and unreality.
Fulci and Salvati also employ precise framing and deep depth of field to emphasise Virginia’s alienation and growing paranoia. Scenes are exquisitely framed throughout, while deep focus renders visible each plane within the composition. The precision with which these shots are composed is truly astounding. In one notable scene, taking place after Virginia has been interviewed the police, she exits into a massive atrium encircled by wooden walkways. As the camera pans out, Virginia’s figure is lost and the spiralling galleries create a corkscrew pattern that echoes her unravelling psyche. Depth of field is also skillfully used in a later scene when Virginia walks to her car, just before discovering an important clue about the identity of the supposed victim. The sharp focus allows the viewer to appreciate the detailed composition of the shot. Our eyes follow the steep staircase that stretches far into the extreme background and whose height dwarfs Virginia, making her appear small and vulnerable. Combined with Frizzi’s taut score – dominated by a carillon, strings and synthesisers – these exquisitely arranged frames suggest mounting unease and an omnipresent, creeping dread.
Shameless Films’ new 2K restoration allows the viewer to fully appreciate these stunning sequences and revel in Fulci’s elegantly composed scenes. The image is consistently clear and sharp, which accentuates the finely detailed mise-en-scène. The Psychic is also distinguished by its rich colour palette of deep blood reds and opulent autumnal hues. The use of vivid reds and earthy shades reinforces the film’s Gothic sensibilities, gesturing towards a deep-seated preoccupation with death and premature burial. Following the restoration process, these colours appear even more vibrant, making this release of The Psychic a stunning visual spectacle. The new Shameless restoration also features both English and Italian audio, along with revised English subtitles on the Italian track. Bonus material includes two interviews with Fulci’s daughter Antonella, an interview with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and an interview with Fabio Frizzi about his score (which was famously reused by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill Volume 1). There is also a feature providing an overview of the restoration process for The Psychic, showing different stages of its progression.
The Psychic is an underrated entry in Fulci’s extensive filmography. Following its original release, it was received unenthusiastically, and it unfairly garnered a reputation as dull and repetitive. However, this is very much a superficial evaluation of The Psychic. Fulci himself described the film as “mechanical”, not because it was formulaic but because of the carefully constructed nature of the narrative. Indeed, many recent reappraisals of the film have emphasised its inventive plot, creative cinematography and ceaselessly tense atmosphere. With Shameless Film’s stunning new restoration, The Psychic will hopefully gain both the wide audience and the critical acclaim it deserves.
The Psychic is available to purchase on Blu-ray and stream on demand from 9 August 2021.
Pre-order from Shameless: https://www.shameless-films.com/product/the-psychic-blu-ray/
Stephen Thrower, Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (Fab Press, 2018)