Stelvio Cipriani: Theme from Voci dal Profondo
Lucio Fulci had a deeper involvement in Voices from Beyond than in many of his other films. He not only directed the film, with his oldest daughter Camilla as Assistant Director; he also co-wrote the screenplay (along with Piero Regnoli), which is adapted from one of his own published stories. So close was this project to Fulci's heart that he dedicated Voices from Beyond "to my few real friends", and indeed the film seems in many ways calculated to frustrate and disappoint viewers who expected one of Fulci's typically bloodthirsty horror films.
But not all the disappointment is calculated.
As was often the case with Fulci's later films, there is an enormous gap between the ideas of the film and their execution. Here's an example of what Imean: Fulci's Aenigma (1987) is, in my opinion, the strongest of his late films, and would have been considerably more successful if its budget had not been so cripplingly low. In Aenigma, Fulci aimed for sheer imaginative spectacle, including works of art that come to life, and an attack by snails... but he had to realize these effects on the cheap, and as a result his set-pieces come off looking ridiculous. In the case of Voices..., which is much more original in concept than Aenigma, the problem isn't the budget: it's the screenplay. Voices... takes place in the Idiot Universe, where there are no competent professional people of any kind. Doctors, police, embalmers (especially embalmers)... murderers... ghosts... nobody behaves as though they had the slightest bit of sense. On one level, Voices... tries to pretend that it is a murder mystery, but the "mystery" is so transparent it's insulting. This is a shame, because (as is also the case with Aenigma) the ideas behind the screenplay carry a great deal of unexpected warmth and humanity... even (dare I say it?) maturity of outlook... but it's all undone by the stupidity of the script itself.
The movie begins with a Prologue. A man and a woman are having sex in a dimly lit bedroom, when they are interrupted by the sound of a little boy crying for his mother. The man reacts to the whining child with unexpected fury: he leaps from the bed, grabs a knife and stalks down a long hallway to the child's room. The woman, evidently the child's mother, doesn't try to restrain him. In fact, she seems to be paralyzed on the bed. Nevertheless, she seems to be able to see what is going on over on the other side of the house, so we begin to realize that this is her dream.
As the mother "watches" in horror, the man plunges the knife again and again into an unconvincing mannequin that's supposed to be the child's body. Blood spatters his face...
... but, as we guessed, it was all a dream: the woman wakes up, alone in her bed. She goes to check on her son, who is sleeping peacefully. As she leaves, the opening credits begin, to the accompaniment of an Italian children's song; the camera slowly pans over some of the child's paintings, most of which show a scowling, angry figure looming over a small, helpless-looking figure that probably represents the child.
Then begins The Story:
Giorgio Mainardi, the man we saw in the opening dream sequence, is dying — and dying messily. While his family watches at his hospital bedside, Mainardi vomits blood all over the pillow and sheets. Fulci's camera puts us behind the eyes of the dying man, as the doctors and nurses make futile, foolish attempts to tend to him. Mainardi is able to gasp one last word — "Why?" — before he dies in a fountain of blood.
When next we see Mainardi, he is lying grey and still, his nostrils plugged with cotton, just before his body is to be moved to the morgue. The doctors are consoling his (apparently) grief-stricken family: his wife, Lucy (the woman we saw in the prologue), whose tears mysteriously dry up when nobody is watching; his stepmother, Hilda, an iron-fisted old harridan; and Mario, Hilda's son by a different marriage, who is a talentless hanger-on.
Naturally, says the doctor, there will have to be an autopsy to determine the cause of Mainardi's sudden death. These words bring Hilda out of any pretense of grief. Doesn't the hospital know, she says, what a wealthy and powerful family the Mainardis are? Has nobody thought of the consequences they'd bring upon themselves for violating poor Giorgio's body like that? Why, the very idea...!
The doctor is as unimpressed by Hilda's threats as we in the audience are unimpressed by the quality of the hospital's care. Out in the hall, Giorgio's body is wheeled by, covered in a sheet. All at once, we overhear the dead man's thoughts (!) as the gurney passes. "Why an autopsy?" he asks, through the echoey megaphone ghosts and voice-overs generally use; "What did they do to me?"
The late Giorgio's intrusion into the scene comes as something of a surprise to us. Is this going to turn out to be his story? The Prologue suggested Lucy was going to be the focus of the plot; and in our last glimpse of Mainardi, he was absolutely inert... It's strange to have a character who's both figuratively and literally in the background of the scene suddenly contribute a voice-over. This lack of focus, this sort of sudden shift in tone and emphasis, is typical of the whole film: in fact, we haven't even met the movie's true (living) protagonist yet.
It's clear from the outset that somebody in the Mainardi household is responsible for Giorgio's death. Hilda, who's objected so strongly to the autopsy, seems to be the most likely suspect; but it's Lucy who shows the first signs of a guilty conscience. The family returns to the Mainardi villa, where the long-suffering maid is taking care of Giorgio's elderly father and his young son David; and Lucy, still feeling the effects of the tranquilizer they gave her at the hospital, seems to hear Giorgio's voice echoing through the house. He'll find the one responsible, he says, and bring him to justice. Panic-stricken, Lucy runs into the living room — only to find the maid has fallen asleep in front of the television, while the news shows a clip of Giorgio responding to some past business scandal.
But even cold-blooded Hilda starts to show signs of nervousness. At first she gloats over Giorgio's death, even in the presence of her husband, Giorgio's father (she feels safe doing so because her husband is an invalid, trapped voiceless and motionless in his wheelchair and assumed to be senile). She storms into Giorgio's room and throws his clothing out of the closets, telling the maid to get rid of it all immediately... so there will no longer be a trace of Giorgio anywhere in the house. But at night, alone in the hallway, as she passes by a painting of her late stepson, she starts to feel as though she is being watched. The door to Giorgio's room swings open by itself... and when Hilda peers inside, she sees that all Giorgio's clothes have been put back neatly in their place.
OK, I'll admit: if this is a sign of a haunting, it's a feeble one. But it's enough to unnerve Hilda. Naturally, it turns out the maid put everything back herself: she couldn't bear to see such expensive clothing lying in a heap on the floor, so she hung everything back up until someone could come for it.
So far we've been shown that any ghosts stalking the Mainardi villa are the product of the inhabitants' troubled minds. All that is about to change, and the change begins when Giorgio's oldest child Rosy comes home from college (in a self-referential twist, it turns out that Rosy's studying at St. Mary's, the college located somewhere between Boston and Beograd where Aenigma takes place).
The reception Rosy gets from her family is... well... strained, to say the least. Against all odds, Rosy has turned out to be a sweet and pleasant young woman, so it's no wonder that Hilda, Mario and even her own Mother can't stand her. The only people who seem glad to see her are the maid and her old boyfriend (who just happens to be a medical student interning at the hospital where Giorgio's autopsy is being performed).
But the one person who is most anxious to see Rosy is the one who is least able to express his emotion: Giorgio himself.
At Giorgio's funeral, we're again put in the uncomfortable position of seeing things from the victim's point of view. The camera looks up from the coffin as the people closest to Giorgio come up to pay their last... er... well, respects is probably the wrong word. As each person steps up to the coffin, we're given a flashback to their last significant meeting with the dead man. Lucy's flashback shows us Giorgio's despair over the distance between them, and how joyless their "lovemaking" had become. With Mario, Giorgio remembers how the young man approached him at breakfast, hoping to convince him to give him a position in his company. Giorgio had not even attempted to be polite in his dismissal. Then, it's the stepmother's turn: Hilda, who is accustomed to giving orders and having her own way, had been in for a severe shock when Giorgio had cut off all her access to his money.
Next in line to place flowers on Giorgio's coffin is his mistress, Rita. Her last meeting with the dead man had been equally traumatic. Giorgio had become sick of the emptiness of his entire life — not just the poisonous atmosphere of his home, or the corruption in his business, but everything, including the passionless infidelity expected of a man in his position. Just before he died, he had thrown Rita out of his life forever.
To put it succinctly, then: everybody wanted to kill Giorgio Mainardi.
But then comes Rosy... Rosy, the one person in his life who showed him love and kindness. Giorgio's last memory of Rosy is perhaps the most painful of the flashbacks: Giorgio had been standing in darkness by the bed of his helpless father, when Rosy had slipped in silently. She had so clearly needed to talk to him, and perhaps she sensed that he needed to talk to her as well; but rather than open up to her, Giorgio had lost his temper, ordering her out of the room, and telling her never to come in without knocking. Now that it's too late, Giorgio realizes which of the two men in that room had been truly trapped in silence.
Now, though, it's Rosy who offers Giorgio his one hope for eternal rest. The night after the funeral, he appears to his daughter in her dreams. At first, Rosy is terrified of him, not only because he's supposed to be dead, but also because he had become such a dark and forbidding figure to her as she grew older. But Giorgio begs her not to be afraid. He takes her to the riverside where they had gone when Rosy was a little girl, and in a surprisingly sweet and sentimental scene he tries to convey to her how much he had really loved her.
This reconciliation scene is not only the emotional heart of the movie, but is also the scene in which the story's most ingenious ideas are presented. Fulci's explanation of ghosts is fascinating, and belongs in a better movie: according to Fulci, ghosts can continue to exist only as long as their physical image remains — that is, either until their bodies decay beyond recognition, or until their image has faded in the minds of those that choose to keep their memory alive (whether out of love or hate makes no difference).
This means Giorgio's ghost has only a little time to do what he needs to do — and what he needs to do is not what we might have expected. He needs Rosy's help to find out who was responsible for his death... but Giorgio does not want revenge; he isn't even interested in simple justice. Giorgio knows that he brought his own fate upon himself, even as he refused his daughter's love. Revenge is a pointless gesture for someone who had come to realize his life was meaningless. But Giorgio will not be able to rest in peace unless he knows exactly who killed him, and why.
This aspect of the story alone lifts Voices... into a completely different realm from most ghost stories. All Giorgio wants is the ability to read the last page of his own story — a simple, human desire, and one that his daughter is anxious to fulfill for him as a last demonstration of her love. While Rosy works to get at the truth by day, by night the ghost will creep into the dreams of the people he suspects, through the cracks in their guilty consciences. It's certainly not the sort of setup we'd expect from a horror movie... least of all from a horror movie by Lucio Fulci. It's easy to see why Fulci's regular audience, who'd come to expect graphic violence and cruelty from his films, found Voices... something of a let-down.
But the real problem here isn't that Fulci disappointed the gore fans. The problem is he really didn't give us very much to take the place of the absent violence. If the basic premise of the story is a good deal more humane than we might have expected, the rest of the film subverts Fulci's best intentions, by being — there's no other way to put it — stupid.
We don't need Rosy to solve the mystery for us: we know who killed Giorgio. The movie reveals the killer's identity to us very early on, and also shows us the way the murder was committed. But, since the movie is set in the Idiot Universe, Rosy doesn't understand what she sees — and apparently we're not expected to understand, either, which is silly. To be fair, the killer did not act and could not have acted alone, so there is a tiny element of surprise left to Rosy's investigation. But once we see who the killer is, that really only leaves two other credible suspects to choose from; so you'll understand how tiny the surprise really is.
Thinking of idiocies, we're also shown what is probably the least professional autopsy in horror movie history (conducted by Fulci himself!). The autopsy comes to nothing, though, since the one tiny sample of lacerated intestine that is removed from Mainardi's body is ruined when somebody sneaks in and knocks the glass jar off the shelf. Rosy's boyfriend, the medical student, points out that he had a chance to examine a piece of the intestine before the "accident", and there were slivers of glass in the tissue even then... but Rosy forbids him to take this information to the police. If you find that hard to believe, then get this: he listens to her!. In fact, even when an attempt is made on Rosy's life, she still refuses to go to the police.
So, yes, it's a universe full of idiots, and Rosy's the champion of them all. Still, she does have one moment to shine, and that comes when she goes to interview Giorgio's mistress. She merely wants to know where the two of them went and what they did at their last meeting, the night before Giorgio died. The camera slowly pans across to Rita, as she starts describing how their "relationship" (such as it was) began to go sour. Very, very gradually and deliberately, the camera comes to rest on Rita's face, as she becomes increasingly emotional; she insists that she really loved Giorgio... that she may have started out as a gold-digger hoping to cash in on Giorgio's largesse, but eventually... eventually... (and so forth). But even as Rita gets more and more wrapped up in her little tragedy, the camera has pulled back a bit, and we see Rosy quietly leaving the room behind her. Rita is still absorbed in her own performance as the camera slips by her and peers around a corner: through a window we see Rosy is already halfway down the street. She pauses once, a tiny figure framed by the glass, and looks back; but she only hesitates for a moment (good for you, Rosy!). It's a finely judged scene that manages to tell us everything we need to know about Rita, without needing to explain anything.
If Rosy's part of the investigation is generally underwhelming, Giorgio's has a bit more zest to it. One by one he revisits the people in his life, giving them nightmares in hopes of forcing a confession from the guilty party.
Lucy's nightmare is the same one she had in the prologue: we see Giorgio taking a sharp implement to little David once again... only this time, we see a little more of the dream. When Lucy begs him not to kill his own son, Giorgio howls, "He's not my son!" and stabs with renewed vigor.
In Rita's dream, she and Giorgio are back in the restaurant where Giorgio broke up with her. The waiters have been replaced by withered cadavers, and Rita's plate of fried eggs suddenly turns into a plate of... fried eyeballs. "Riii---taaa! Riiii---taaa!" giggle the eyeballs (?), as someone pops them open with a knife... Giorgio then accuses her of having killed him. Even though he rots before her eyes like M. Valdemar, Rita still goes on protesting her innocence.
As for Mario: he's such an obvious bungler that Giorgio doesn't even bother putting in a personal appearance. Instead, Mario's dream has him trapped in a mausoleum: every time Mario attempts to escape, he finds himself back in the mausoleum. Suddenly, the tombs begin to burst open, and zombies come crawling out of them! For about a minute and a half, dream sequence or no dream sequence, we're back in classic Fulci territory, as the living dead surround Mario and tear at his flesh. But just as we're enjoying the Maestro's very last zombie attack sequence, it ends with an even more horrifying image: Mario wakes up in bed with his stepsister Lucy. As he slinks back to his own room, Rosy watches from her doorway... as disgusted as we are. If there were any further doubts in our minds whose child little David really is, they're gone by now.
The movie tries to go for pathos one more time, as Giorgio appears in his paralyzed father's dreams. Here, unfortunately, we have another one of those instances where a character tries to reveal the name of the killer — and instead of coming right out with it, he talks around the Big Revelation. And of course, the strain of the moment is too much for him, so the old man dies of a heart attack without having told Giorgio which person it really was. Well then: now that Dad's dead, too, you'd figure he could hang around with Giorgio's ghost and tell him at his leisure... but I suppose the spirit world doesn't work that way.
Rosy does manage to piece together the "mystery" before her father fades away forever — cutaway shots to his rapidly-decomposing body in the tomb serve as a kind of stop-watch for Rosy's progress — and she and Giorgio share a good laugh over it as the movie winds to a close. Something about the sound of Rosy's laughter terrifies a woman who overhears it from the other side of the cemetery: she crosses herself and runs away. I'm glad Fulci included that reaction shot, because I too am troubled by the laughter. Sure, Rosy and her father now know the truth, and both can presumably be at peace. But the killers got exactly what they wanted, and now will never be brought to justice. We're also inclined to doubt that the guilty parties will trust Rosy to keep her mouth shut, so it seems likely she'll have to be on her guard against a horrible death for the rest of her life. Rosy's laughter seems to suggest more that she's been emotionally unhinged by what she's seen than that she's going to live happily ever after.
So what are we to make of this very, very strange film?
Only nominally a horror film, and still less a mystery, Voices from Beyond is mostly a meditation on the idea of family — and particularly on the relationships between fathers and children. Giorgio's own father is trapped, not only in his own house, but in his own body, and held prisoner by a "family" of cruel strangers. Giorgio's son is not his son at all, but the child of his father's second wife's son. It's Rosy, the spurned daughter, who is the only one who remains faithful to her father. In the end, the film suggests, no relationship endures except blood. Love, desire, and duty all may fade, or may be put aside for personal gain; but blood ties may survive even cruelty and death. Fulci seems to admit this is true even among the villains of his piece, which is perhaps why he is unwilling to see them brought to justice.
If I have been less than enthusiastic in my review of the film, it's because I feel there could have been a much better movie built from the same material. I've never read the short story on which the film is based, but Palmerini and Mistretta praise it highly in "Spaghetti Nightmares"; I can see how these ideas would lend themselves better to expression on the page, rather than in film, though I suppose if the movie had actually been shorter and more concentrated, say into the space of a Twilight Zone episode, it might have been made to work better.
Another of Fulci's controversial late movies, Cat in the Brain (1990), was clearly an autobiographical statement: Fulci himself played a film director name "Lucio Fulci", who became so obsessed with his images of death and mayhem that he turned to a psychiatrist for help. The psychiatrist then used "Fulci"'s grim fantasies to go out and commit his own series of atrocities. It was a black-humored, very public statement on his life and work, and even more importantly on the public perception of his life and work. It's tempting to think of Voices... as Fulci's more private autobiography: here was the director, feeling (as the film's dedication proves) alone and abandoned toward the end of his life and career; and perhaps, like Giorgio Mainardi, even acknowledging he himself was to blame for many of his problems. Here was the irascible Fulci, working with his daughter... on a film about a man reaching out to his daughter in the face of death. Is there any significance to this? Could it explain the sudden outpouring of sentiment from a director known for his cruel streak?
I'm sure Fulci himself would have resented the suggestion. He would have been right to be angry: this is pure uninformed speculation on my part, and this sort of speculation is best left to graduate students at least one generation after the subject's death. I suppose I can be forgiven for looking for hidden meanings in Voices..., in an attempt to make up for its meaninglessness on the surface.
There are odd parallels between Voices from Beyond and "Murther and Walking Spirits", the last novel by the late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Davies's novel, which came out around the same time as Fulci's film, also features a dead man coming to terms with the meaning of his life and death, through a very personal interpretation of the "afterlife". The novel also affirms the notion of the importance of family — of blood family, that is — even over death and personal annihilation. Though the resemblance between the two works is superficial, the critical response to them was uncannily similar: many wrote Davies's work off as a complete failure, while even the writer's admirers had to admit it was an uneven achievement. I think the most amazing parallel between the two works is that both set up the expectation of revenge in their audience, only to ignore the expectation entirely. This may be one of the biggest problems with both the execution and the appreciation of both. After all, it's a very strong gesture to murder your protagonist before the story has even started. How can you expect to sustain your audience's interest, once they realize that nothing else in the story is going to match the impact of your opening gesture?