Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes/The Psychic (1977)
“Horror is not a goal in itself to me. I am basically interested in the fantastic.”
For the casual horror fan, Italian “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci’s legacy is inextricably linked to the horror films he made starting in the late 70’s and onward into the early 90’s before his untimely passing in 1996. His versatility has been mostly forgotten, despite his ability to work in several genres, including comedies, westerns, and fantasies. The debate between Fulci vs. Argento has raged for years. My take on it is fairly simple. Argento is all about sensory experiences involving colors, music, and light. Fulci’s style is no-less dreamlike, but he utilizes a constantly-moving, fluid camera along with a more visceral approach, particularly when it comes to blood and guts. He stated in interviews that he loved a strong plot, a criticism often lobbed at Argento for his preference of style over substance. Up until Zombie (1979, aka Zombi 2, aka Zombie Flesh Eaters), his only major contribution to horror was the singularly disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling in 1973, with 1971's Lizard in a Woman's Skin being more of a mystery-thriller. Many fans regard Zombie as a major turning point in his career since it set the then-50-year-old filmmaker on a darker, gorier path than his previous efforts. For the maestro himself, however, Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes (aka The Psychic, 1977) was a turning point in his career. As he put it: “It was my first real venture into the fantastic, but commercially it was a flop.”
The intricacies of Notes’ plot can’t be overstated. Fulci’s belief in strong plotting is absolutely on display here, despite the fact that the endings of films like The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery have a level of ambiguity that could reasonably be regarded as “head scratchers.” In Notes, that love for ambiguity leads to a tantalizing and deliciously enigmatic ending. Not only was Notes important for Fulci in terms of style and substance, but it would allow him to assemble the crew with which he’d work for the duration of his career. A crew which included his brilliant cinematographer Sergio Salvati, writer Dardano Sacchetti (A Bay of Blood, Demons), and most importantly in the case of this film, composer Fabio Frizzi, whose gorgeous, haunting score would experience a major resurgence after Tarantino’s use of it in Kill Bill Vol. 1. What’s particularly of note in Notes (get it?) is how important Frizzi’s music literally is to the plot. Most scores are non-diegetic, but the famous main theme plays a major role, particularly near the finale.
Fulci was always a fan of Edgar Allen Poe’s work, and his collaboration with Sacchetti (who suggested the Poe-inspired ending) and writer Robert Gianviti (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) led to a dense and mysterious screenplay which was very nearly destroyed by indecisive producers. Original producers Luigi and Aurelio DeLaurentiis delayed production for a year, changing their minds constantly by suggesting the film become a comedy, then a detective story, and even a counterespionage yarn.
Fortunately, his meeting with Fabio Frizzi’s father, producer Fulvio Frizzi, resulted in his ability to shoot his script the way it was intended. The film’s complex use of repeated images and shifting timelines necessitated the use of two continuity girls and a carefully calibrated approach to the way in which particular objects were filmed. The result is arguably one of Fulci’s most accomplished, compelling, and underrated thrillers.
The evocative American poster for The Psychic, depicting a human skull with a scantily-clad woman hanging out of an eyehole, appears to indicate a horror film full of sex and violence, but The Psychic/Notes functions more as a mystery rather than a straight horror. It’s an scintillating mix of intrigue and puzzle-solving revolving around a vibrant and determined performance by Jennifer O’Neill (Scanners). O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, the newly-married socialite wife to wealthy businessman Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko, Hercules, Devil Fish), whose childhood was permanently damaged when she experienced a vivid premonition of her mother’s violent death. This is depicted in an unforgettable scene where her mother takes a nosedive off a cliff and we’re treated to closeups of her face scraping against the cliff face (with very obvious dummy work) before landing on the rocks below.
Years later, she’s leading a life of luxury and affluence, but when she arrives at a dilapidated palazzo which she wishes to restore, something draws her to a particular room. She has flashes of a smoking cigarette, a broken mirror, a man with a limp, and an elderly woman whose head has been smashed in. Without thinking, she begins hammering away at the wall with a pickaxe and discovers the skeleton of a young woman behind the façade. Her husband is implicated in the murder and the rest of the film revolves around Virginia’s unflinching determination to prove her husband’s innocence.
Fulci described working with O’Neill as “a marvelous experience,” which definitely translates onscreen. She has a warm, gentle quality which doesn’t detract from her tough-cookie resolution. Her husband doesn’t believe in this psychic mumbo-jumbo and O’Neill’s apologetic nature makes her endearing even as it’s clear these visions are absolutely vital to proving his innocence. Fulci’s exploration of the fantastical in a realistic setting is helped immensely by his brilliant use of the zoom lens. Zooming has become synonymous with the cinema of the 70’s, and with good reason. It suddenly allowed filmmakers the chance to move the camera without actually moving it, while also keeping the budgets lower. Fulci’s regular editor Ornella Micheli, who would move on to become Joe D’Amato’s editor for a number of years, expertly repeats Virginia’s fractured visions while also doubling down on the many, many, zoom-ins on Virginia’s eyes, signifying her second sight being activated.
Notes is an important piece in Fulci’s filmography since it pre-dates his more extreme horror films. There’s a difference between restraint and control. Although it was made abundantly clear with his later work that Fulci was more than willing to push the envelope when it came to onscreen violence, the relatively low body count and bloodshed in Notes works wonders as the final, harrowing extended sequence approaches. Having an inkling of where she needs to look for her next clue, she takes a cab ride down to the presumed scene of the murder. Things already seem wrong since she’s essentially experiencing a more heightened version of déjà vu, having seen the same yellow cab in her visions. Ignoring this, she arrives at the house and the ghastly images in her head begin to connect with reality.
The plot twist is a tad convoluted, but no less interesting. Her husband, a model with whom Francesco was romantically-involved, and wealthy art enthusiast Emilio Rospini (Gabriele Ferzetti, Once Upon a Time in the West), stole a valuable painting and through a series of double crosses, the model ended up dead. Virginia’s dogged efforts to free her husband become bitterly ironic because the dead old woman she saw in her visions ends up being murdered by Francesco only because Virginia was able to prove his innocence. Otherwise, he’d never have been back on the street in the first place. She doesn’t realize this now. She only sees Rospini, wearing dark gloves and searching for an incriminating letter in the dead woman’s home. A nightmarish chase ensues, leading them to a church under reconstruction. She hides up in the scaffolding but is given away by Frizzi’s evocative theme, which plays on a wrist watch given to her by Francesco’s disaffected sister, Gloria (Evelyn Stewart, The Whip and the Body). Rospini attempts to get to her but falls, presumably to his death. There’s a great jump scare when Virginia walks by his lifeless body only to have him lunge forward and try to grab her ankle. Later, he reveals to the police the entire story of Francesco’s orchestration of the art theft from his hospital bed just as Virginia is slowly becoming more and more suspicious of her husband’s innocence.
Although she hasn’t read the letter, Francesco doesn’t believe her and brutally smashes her in the head. Walling her up like in “The Cask of Amontillado,” her visions of seeing bricks piled on cement become clear and her premonitions weren’t just about the old woman’s death, but also her own. Virginia’s parapsychologist friend Luca (Marc Porel, Don’t Torture a Duckling) figures things out and races to the scene of the crime, where he’s very nearly proven wrong were it not for the lightly-heard tune coming from behind the walls. The film ends with Francesco nervously looking on as Luca stares at the wall, contemplating.
Notes is never less than compelling and isn’t particularly gloomy either. There’s some fun to be had, mainly from the spoiled Gloria, whose comment about her brother’s innocence is priceless: “I've had fifty-six lovers and haven't killed even one of them.” Luca’s secretary Bruna (Jenny Tamburi, D’Amato’s Christina) is also a hoot, going above and beyond what an assistant would normally do for her boss. I half-expected Luca to say, “You know, I’m not paying extra for all this, right?”
As a mystery, Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes is fantastic and the thriller elements ramp up a great deal during the last half hour, an impressive display of mood and tone control by Fulci. For gorehounds, it’s not one to rush to, but for those interested in the maestro’s more mature, understated efforts, it’s one of his best.