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VIOLENT EMOTIONS – A look at Severin Films’ fantastic new Blu-ray of Lucio Fulci’s ÆNIGMA

Following a flurry of activity in the early-to-mid ’Eighties, Lucio Fulci continued to endure—at least, to some extent—even as the once-prosperous, by-then-financially-floundering Italian film industry began to implode on itself, with ever-dwindling budgets and fewer and fewer productions being made. Produced in conjunction with Sutjeska Film (from the former Yugoslavia) and Ettore Spagnuolo’s A.M. Trading International, Ænigma was an attempt at recreating some of Fulci’s earlier gore epics. Unfortunately, however, it’s a decidedly middling effort, which, if it hadn’t been directed by Fulci, would have surely been forgotten in no time at all. Yet, as with their continuing spate of newly-remastered Italian films on Blu-ray, Severin Films present still another impressive release, boasting vastly-improved picture quality, along with some solid extras.  

A victim of a school prank gone horribly wrong, Kathy (Mijlijana Zirojevic’) lies in a coma at the nearby hospital as she plots her telepathic revenge on the many spoiled, entitled rich kids at St. Mary’s College in Boston, an affluent girls’ school. Through the use of Eva Gordon (‘Lara Naszinski’ / Lara Lamberti), the new arrival, Kathy uses her as a sort of conduit through whom to exact her own personal vendetta, but Dr. Anderson (Jared Martin), a local neurologist and the school’s resident doctor, begins to notice parallels between the deaths at the school and Kathy’s sudden (quote) “violent emotions”, even though she remains in a clearly comatose state. 

The story (such that it is) was penned by Fulci in collaboration with Giorgio Mariuzzo— who also scripted Fulci’s much-beloved The Beyond (1981)—and, as was to be expected in the copycat world of late-entry Italian cinema, Ænigma pinches elements from a number of other films, such as Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978). Of course, this particular plot derivation is fine in and of itself—for proof, check out Mario Landi’s similarly-plotted Patrick Still Lives (1980), an unabashedly sleazy, gory take on the aforesaid Franklin film—but not only is Ænigma decidedly ‘well past its sell-by-date’, it’s also—much like the comatose Kathy herself—a rather lifeless endeavour, which half-heartedly strives to emulate Fulci’s past successes with only a modicum of success. With its candy-coloured lighting scheme and all-girl boarding school setting, Ænigma also takes further liberties from the likes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), in addition ‘borrowing’ significantly from Argento’s Phenomena (1984), which also utilized some hoary telekinesis angles that allowed its protagonist (played by Jennifer Connelly) to communicate with and control insects.

It’s now well-known that Fulci wasn’t in good health when he worked on both this and his troubled Zombi 3 (1988), and according to actor Jared Martin, as told to interviewer Dean Galanis in issue #19 of Steve Puchalski’s Shock Cinema, Martin “got the feeling of sadness about the man”; which arguably permeates the entire production. But despite the melancholic aura, like most of Fulci’s work from the period, he nevertheless succeeds in creating a number of peculiar and/or outrageous scenes. In what is among the present one’s most memorable set-pieces—itself an “homage” to the spider-attack scene from aforementioned The Beyond—involves a girl who is, quite literally, ‘slimed’ to death by a swarm of voracious snails (!?!?). While they’re quite icky critters (albeit far from threatening), this sequence involving the ghastly gastropods is unique to be sure, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the ‘bite’ as was evidently intended (perhaps a slew of slithering slugs might have been more effective instead, at least in terms of basic grossness?). Some of the other potentially interesting ideas, such as the school’s creepy custodian (Dusica Zagarec), who turns out to be Kathy’s mom, also rapidly go nowhere, and despite their intrinsic connection, it’s comically rendered via a pair of superimposed glowing red eyes (guess whose!). However, in spite of these few-and-far-between highlights, the film does eventually run out of ideas, even stooping so low as to revel in some trashy, daytime TV-style dramatics when Dr. Anderson (who seems to have his eyes on many of these comely college girls!) and Eva begin an illicit affair while she convalesces at a psychiatric clinic. 

Like so many of Fulci’s films, due to his international fanbase, Ænigma has seen releases the world over on both DVD and Blu-ray, but none of them can compare to Severin Films’ superb, newly-remastered disc. Restored in 4K from the original camera negative, Luigi Ciccarese’s workmanlike yet colourful photography looks just right here, retaining the film’s original 1.85:1 framing and the film’s exaggerated colour palette, including all those vibrant shades of blue, which were drastically toned-down in 88 Films’ earlier U.K. Blu-ray. As with that Brit disc, Severin have also included both the English and Italian audio tracks (in DTS-HD 2.0 mono) with optional English subtitles for the latter, which is a nice bonus, although most viewers will undoubtedly prefer the Anglo dubbing track, featuring the familiar voice talents of Carolyn De Fonseca, Ted Rusoff and Pat Starke, all of whom get to rattle-off plenty of hilarious dialogue. 

As per their usual high standards, Severin have once again put together a wonderful array of extra features to help contextualize the film’s rather humble origins and the state of Fulci’s career at the time. Beginning with a relaxed and informative audio commentary from Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, the pair discuss Fulci’s career at the time. They point out how he “was obliged to take whatever was given to him at any given time”, but also regard Ænigma as “one of the very last classical-style Italian horror films” and the “border” film between his next phase of his career, which marked a noticeable “aesthetical shift”. Plenty of the film’s other oddball are also discussed, including many of its quirky death sequences, the use of miniatures during a couple of key scenes, and of course, Ænigma’s frankly awful theme song “Head Over Heels” (mistakenly spelled “Head Over Meels” in the credits!), as performed by Douglas Meakin, who we also get to learn about.

Other extras include a reedited version of Naomi Holwill’s An Italian Aenigma: Appraising Late Day Fulci, an interesting look at many of the maestro’s usually-dismissed, ‘last-gasp’ horror efforts, featuring interviews with many of the folk who worked with him during this turbulent time, including actor Brett Halsey, screenwriter and author Antonio Tentori and stuntman/actor Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, to name just a few; whereas a number of writers and film critics also get plenty of screen time in their discussion of all things Fulci. In Writing Nightmares, scriptwriter Giorgio Mariuzzo largely talks of his time working in the industry, but also relates plenty of unforgettable anecdotes relating to Fulci and some of his unusual working methods, admitting that he “wasn’t really cut out to write horror”. English and Italian (subtitled in English) trailers and the film’s Italian opening and closing credits finish off the extras. And those lucky enough to obtain the Limited Edition release through Severin’s Mid-Year Sale were also treated to the inclusion of Carlo Maria Cordio’s entire soundtrack on a bonus CD, as well as a colourful slipcover showcasing the film’s original uncensored artwork. 

It’s no doubt that most casual viewers will quickly dismiss Ænigma as merely marginal Fulci. Still, regardless of the film itself, Severin Films deliver another marvellous Blu-ray, which goes a long way in helping increase the worth of this modest—typically ridiculed—entry that most Fulci connoisseurs won’t hesitate to pick up just the same.

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About Dennis Capicik

Dennis Capicik is a lifelong fan of movies. He is the co-founder of the old school ’zine Sub-Terrenea and has also contributed to Video Watchdog, European Trash Cinema, Giallo Pages, Killbaby! and the original incarnation of Monster! He is also a regular contributor to the re-vamped Monster! and Weng’s Chop. He also runs the movie blog Unpopped Cinema.

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