Italian maestro Lucio Fulci could make a pretty decent film in any genre you’d care to name, and as fun as his horror gorefests are, some of my favorite movies of his fall more into the giallo or thriller genre. One of these is the subject of today’s post, and I feel very strongly that it’s one of Fulci’s most underrated.
Sette Note In Nero, aka Seven Notes In Black, aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, aka Death Tolls Seven Times, aka The Psychic came out in Italy in 1977 to lackluster reviews; it wasn’t released on DVD in the US until many years later, and only got a Blu-ray release in 2019.
Despite its lukewarm reception upon release, the movie has aged really well, in my opinion: it’s a tight little supernatural murder mystery with a gothic flair that deftly maintains an air of heightening tension throughout the entire film, keeping you on that fabled edge of your seat until the very end. In addition, the set design is gorgeous, and the performances from leads Jennifer O’Neill and Gianni Garko seem to be excellent (the dubbing is a little distracting, but not nearly as bad as some other Italian films of the period). There is very little gore, other than an amusingly Fulci-an moment in the opening flashback scene where a suicidal woman repeatedly sloughs flesh off her face as she jumps to her death off a cliff; other than that, the only blood that appears accompanies a couple of not-terribly-graphic head wounds. So if you’re squeamish about that kind of thing, you may feel free to watch this movie while digging into a huge, glistening bowl of spaghetti marinara; you’ll probably be fine.
The Psychic, like several other gialli, utilizes a plot device I’ve always liked; I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but I’m going to call it “partially spoiling the outcome.” In other words, the viewer already knows more or less what’s going to happen, but the suspense of the film is generated by seeing the way in which the inevitable will come to pass. Even though the story is structured this way, it’s actually still full of surprises, which is one of the reasons I’ve always admired its rather clever screenplay (written by Dardano Sacchetti, who incidentally also penned a bunch of Fulci’s most beloved gore films, like City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery, as well as some of his earlier gialli, like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling). Fulci himself said that the idea for the story grew out of his then-current obsession with fate, and that preoccupation definitely comes through in Sacchetti’s script.
Jennifer O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, an American interior decorator who has recently married a hotshot Italian playboy named Francesco. It is established in the first scene that Virginia is a clairvoyant; we see a flashback of her as a schoolgirl having a vision of her mother’s suicide. Back in the present, she drops her dashing husband off at an airfield for a business trip, and then drives down a highway punctuated by long, dark tunnels. As she drives through one of the tunnels, she suddenly has a disjointed and unsettling vision. Aspects of her vision include:
- Shafts of red light, and what appears to be someone placing a brick in a layer of mortar.
- A pretty but sinister little tune, like something from a music box.
- A cigarette with yellow paper balanced on the edge of a blue ashtray.
- A magazine with an attractive dark-haired woman on the cover.
- A yellow taxi parked on a dark street.
- A broken antique mirror.
- A sumptuously decorated room containing an overturned bust with a letter underneath it.
- A glimpse of a man’s feet as he walks with a decided limp.
- The clearly visible face of a man with a mustache, emerging from the shadows.
- An obviously dead old woman with blood all over her face and head.
- A room with a floor lamp with a red shade, and beyond that a wall with a substantial portion of the masonry removed.
After seeing this seemingly nonsensical collection of images, she awakens on the side of the highway with a police officer knocking on her window and asking if she’s all right. She snaps out of it pretty quickly, but is still troubled by what she’s seen and heard. Despite her unease, however, she continues on to her first destination, the office of her friend Luca Fattori (Marc Porel), who is a parapsychologist and has apparently been counseling Virginia about her visions for many years. She tells him about her latest vision and he records it, though he doesn’t believe it has any particular significance.
Virginia’s next destination turns out to be an old palazzo that is owned by her husband Francesco. He hasn’t lived in it for several years, and it looks all but abandoned, but Virginia has decided that she is going to surprise him by starting to restore the beautiful old place. The caretaker lets her in and she begins poking around. In what was previously Francesco’s bedroom, Virginia starts removing the covers from the furniture and stops cold when one of the items revealed is the antique mirror she saw in her vision. The mirror isn’t broken as it was in her psychic episode, but it’s clearly the same one. Disturbed, she starts pulling off other covers, and yes, here is the floor lamp with the red shade. She glances over at the wall behind the lamp, which of course had a large section missing in her vision. It looks normal now, but she gets closer to inspect it. At first she doesn’t see anything and laughs at her own folly, but then she notices a very faint yellowed line and what appears to be a hairline crack. Still not completely sure she should be doing this, she finds a pickaxe in the basement and goes to town on the wall. It takes her forever, and the movie almost makes us think that there’s not gonna be anything back there, but nope, Virginia’s vision is vindicated (alliteration, bitches). She finds a skeleton and summons the polizia.
It seems clear that Virginia has seen a vision of the murder that ended up with a body walled up in her husband’s palazzo. She assumes that the victim was the dead old woman she saw, and that the murderer was the limping, mustachioed man lurking around on a staircase. So she’s a little put out when her husband is picked up for questioning as soon as he arrives back from his business trip. The cops and her lawyer assure her that this is just a formality, since the skeleton was found in Francesco’s house. Virginia is certain that he is not the murderer, not only because she saw another man in her vision, but also because the estimated time of death of the victim partially overlapped with a point in time, several years earlier, when Francesco was provably out of the country. Virginia is determined to clear her husband’s name, enlisting a couple of lawyers, Luca, Luca’s perky secretary Bruna (Jenny Tamburi), and Francesco’s sister Gloria (Evelyn Stewart) in this endeavor.
Things get confusing pretty quickly, though. First of all, it’s discovered that the skeleton behind the wall is not that of an old woman at all, but of a 25-year-old woman named Agneta Bignardi. Upon seeing a photograph of her, Virginia realizes that she is the dark-haired woman on the magazine cover in her vision. Francesco admits to having a relationship with her several years back (uh-oh). And that’s not the only fact that seems to contradict her vision: she also sees the old woman, very much alive, outside her window one night and gets several phone messages from her in which she insists she knows something about the murder. Turns out that Francesco’s sister smokes cigarettes with yellow paper, and also gives her a watch that plays the sinister little tune she heard in her vision. The man she saw in her vision that she assumed was the murderer, Emilio Rospini (Gabriele Ferzetti), doesn’t have a limp, though he does seem to know something about the girl’s death and acts sinister as fuck. She finds a photograph of Agneta that was apparently taken several months after Francesco left Italy, meaning that the girl was probably killed by Rospini. Or was she?
The tense, nail-biting fun of this movie is seeing each of the images in her vision turning up one by one in reality, and trying to piece together how everything fits. The coolest aspect of this narrative structure (and this is a big ol’ SPOILER ALERT) is that for pretty much the first half of the movie, both the viewer and the film characters assume that Virginia’s vision was of the circumstances of the past murder. But as the story goes on, we slowly begin to realize, along with the characters, that Virginia’s vision was actually of the future, and the suspense gets more and more intense as the details begin to fill in and we realize what’s likely to happen and what exactly is at stake. It’s a self-contained and very satisfying narrative, and even though the very end leaves you going a little, “Wha…?” it’s still a taut, enjoyable ride.
Interestingly, I recently discovered that back in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino was casually considering remaking The Psychic, and to be honest I’m not sure how relieved I should be that it never happened.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
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