Movies: Manhattan Baby (1982)

Not too long before writing this (in early November of 2022), Shudder added a handful of Lucio Fulci’s less-celebrated films, including 1987’s Aenigma, 1990’s Demonia, and the movie we’re talking about today, Manhattan Baby from 1982 (also released under the titles Eye of the Evil Dead and The Possessed; its original title was The Evil Eye, which frankly makes a lot more sense than Manhattan Baby does). I had seen all of three of these films at one time or another, but my last viewings of them were at least twenty years ago, if not more, and I couldn’t really remember a single thing about them. So, curious, I decided to have another gander at the earliest film on offer.

Watching it again, I can totally understand why Manhattan Baby didn’t stick with me; it’s definitely not among Fulci’s best films, and both he and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti later disowned it somewhat, with Fulci in particular calling it “terrible” and pointing to it as the reason he never worked with producer Fabrizio De Angelis—who had collaborated with Fulci on Zombie, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and The New York Ripper—after its release. Part of the problem, it seemed, was that the original concept of the film was going to be a more big-budget (for Fulci) extravaganza, with a focus on paranormal, occult themes rather than gore. But perhaps because Fulci and De Angelis’s previous movie The New York Ripper didn’t perform as well as expected, the budget for Manhattan Baby was sliced in half, and the lack of funds to realize the vision of the story is pretty evident as you watch it.

While I don’t think Manhattan Baby is an awful film, I’ll admit it was a bit of a slog to sit through, as it’s glacially paced, borders on narratively incoherent, and features largely lifeless acting performances. There are some really interesting ideas in there, but many of them were swiped from other, better movies, including some of Fulci’s own prior work. For example, we have a mysterious woman wearing the same white contact lenses as Emily from The Beyond, and Manhattan Baby even utilizes the exact same tinkling, discordant piano tune as that superior film. We also have an appearance here from Giovanni Frezza, who played Bob in 1981’s The House by the Cemetery.

Additionally, the movie also homages Rosemary’s Baby (in its rather meaningless title and in the fact that one of its characters is named Adrian Marcato); The Exorcist (in its focus on a young girl possessed by an evil spirit that latched onto her after an archeological expedition in the desert); and The Birds (in the absolutely batshit—or should that be birdshit?—final sequence). Because it focuses on Egyptology, and specifically on an evil, ancient Egyptian curse that seemingly possesses the daughter of an archaeologist, it could also be said that Manhattan Baby was influenced heavily by the 1971 Hammer film Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (which was in turn loosely adapted from the 1903 novel by Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars).

American actor Christopher Connelly (best known from Peyton Place) stars as the aforementioned archaeologist, Professor George Hacker. He’s in Egypt on a working holiday, accompanied by his wife Emily (played by Laura Lenzi) and their nine-year-old daughter Susie (played by Brigitta Boccoli). Their younger son Tommy (played by the aforementioned Giovanni Frezza) has stayed home in New York, looked after by the family’s au pair, Jamie Lee (played by Cinzia De Ponti, who was also in The New York Ripper and Lamberto Bava’s 1984 Monster Shark, aka Devil Fish).

During the expedition, George comes across an unexplored tomb that’s rigged with booby traps, including a pit of spikes that kills a colleague, and some weird blue laser beams that shoot George in the eyes and blind him. Elsewhere, Emily is taking photos at another site and leaves Susie alone for a few minutes, at which point a creepy old woman with completely white eyes gives the girl an amulet and then mysteriously vanishes.

Back in New York, George is grumpy about the whole loss of vision thing, although the doctor believes it’s just temporary, and that he should regain his sight within the year. Turns out he gets it back sooner than that, though, as another zap from a blue laser beam in his own home restores his vision. It almost seems as though whatever was in that Egyptian tomb didn’t want him to see something that was in there…? Don’t get too excited about this little mystery, though, because it really doesn’t end up factoring into anything as the story goes forward, and at any rate, the blindness didn’t really work as intended, as George remembers what he saw in the tomb well enough to describe it to another colleague of his named Wiler (played by Enzo Marino Bellanich).

Emily, meanwhile, who is a journalist, has an insufferable coworker named Luke (played by Carlo De Mejo from City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery), who is always doing “wacky” things, like wearing those glasses with the eyeballs hanging off of them on springs. One day while at work, Emily gets a phone call from Jamie Lee that the kids are locked in their room and she can’t get them out; when Emily and Luke get to the house, Luke marches up the stairs, opens the bedroom door easily, and subsequently disappears into some kind of portal made up of blue light (an event which Emily does not witness). Emily has no idea where Luke could have gone to, attributing his vanishing act to his penchant for practical jokes, but moments later, we the audience see that he’s somehow been transported to the Egyptian desert, where he has presumably perished from dehydration.

It turns out, you see, that the amulet Susie has is cursed somehow, ostensibly by a demon or something named Habnumenor, and allows people to essentially travel to another dimension. Susie and Tommy go on several of these “voyages,” though the journeys aren’t shown, and it wasn’t all that clear to me whether the kids could go anywhere they wanted, or if they always went to the same place, i.e. the ancient Egyptian dimension. I suspect it’s the latter, as sometimes that dimension seems to overlap with this one—for example, the floor of the kids’ room is occasionally covered with sand that lab analysis confirms came from the Nile delta—but it isn’t explicitly stated.

At some point, the au pair, Jamie Lee, disappears as well, and Tommy tells his parents that she also went on a voyage and hasn’t returned yet. Later on, George’s colleague Wiler, the guy he told about the tomb earlier, is killed in his office by a cobra.

There’s also the small matter of a Polaroid picture that Jamie Lee took of Susie in Central Park, which initially looks completely washed out, but later develops into an image of the park in the background, but with the amulet instead of Susie in the foreground. A woman finds the photo, calls an antique dealer named Adrian Marcato (played by Cosimo Cinieri) about it, then writes his name on the back of the picture and tosses it to Emily from a balcony as Emily walks by on the street.

After this, Susie starts fainting and looking kinda ill, there’s more weird blue light, and though George and Emily are skeptical of the paranormal, they eventually track down Adrian Marcato and see if he can give them any information. He tells them about the amulet and the evil stone that resides within it, and tells them that their daughter has absorbed the evil. They don’t believe him at first, but then find the amulet hidden in Susie’s desk drawer protected by a scorpion; the moment they find it, they get a phone call telling them about Wiler’s strange death, which makes them more willing to accept the supernatural explanation for what’s going on. They still take Susie to the hospital to get checked out, though (and one of the doctors is played by Fulci himself), at which point they discover that the girl’s X-rays show the shadow of a cobra inside her body. Susie looks like she kinda dies temporarily, at least judging from the heart monitor, and the oddly hilarious thing is that when the girl flatlines, there’s no alarm or anything like that to alert hospital staff, and her mom just kinda stands there looking at her blankly. Susie does eventually revive, but the lack of reaction is still pretty bizarre.

Anyway, Marcato meanwhile takes the evil curse thing onto himself, thereby freeing Susie (I think), but then all the stuffed birds in his antique shop come to life and Tippi Hedren his ass, leading to what is easily the best bit of dialogue in the movie: “You can take my life with stuffed birds, but you shall not have my immortal soul, Habnumenor! Birds of darkness, consume me!” All righty then. Incidentally, this is the pretty much the only scene in the movie that recalls Fulci’s earlier gore classics, but by his standards, it’s fairly restrained; the only other flash of grue occurs when Jamie Lee’s grody, zombified arm pops out from behind a wall.

George, upon Marcato’s advice, then chucks the amulet into the East River, but in a brief epilogue, we see the white-eyed lady in Egypt giving the same amulet to another wide-eyed little girl. So the curse continues, I guess, though it’s never explained who this woman is, why she’s specifically targeting young girls, and what Habnumenor’s ultimate goal is. If it’s world domination, it’s going to take a while if he just keeps targeting one child at a time with his mystical, dimension-hopping amulets, but maybe he’s a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race type of guy.

Anyway, as I said, this isn’t a great film by any means; I know it has its defenders, as some people really enjoy the borderline surrealistic tone and Fulci’s willingness to try something conceptually different from what he’d done before (and indeed, this movie seems to have heralded the more sci-fi and fantasy-based direction he explored in some of his subsequent work). I like the idea of weaving an Egyptian curse narrative and a parapsychological angle into a story set in modern-day New York, but the low budget and lack of a cohesively explained mythology really shot this one in the dick. If you’re really into Lucio Fulci’s films and haven’t seen this one, I’d recommend you watch it, but anyone not familiar with his work would probably just be completely baffled and/or bored by it.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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