Saturday, October 8, 2022

#2,831. Manhattan Baby (1982)


Lucio Fulci’s Manhattan Baby gets off to a great start. Shot on-location in Egypt, we follow American archaeologist George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) as he explores a recently unearthed ancient tomb. While there, he is inexplicably stricken blind.

At the same time this is happening, George’s wife Emily (Martha Taylor) and their 9-year-old daughter Susie (Brigitta Boccoli), who accompanied George to Egypt, are sightseeing. When Emily wanders off to take pictures of the Pyramids and Sphinx, Susie is approached by a mysterious old woman, who hands her an amulet that has been cursed.

With these Egyptian sequences, Fulci, aided by the music of Fabio Frizzi, establishes an ominous tone, and he shoots this opening in such a way that even something as seemingly innocent as a handful of sand becomes the harbinger of doom. It is a stylish, engaging start, and it’s unfortunate that the rest of Manhattan Baby isn’t nearly as intriguing.

The curse surrounding young Susie’s new amulet swings into full effect once the Hackers return home to New York City. Reunited with her younger brother Tommy (Giovanni Frezza) and their nanny Jamie Lee (Cinzie De Ponti), Susie begins to experience frightening hallucinations, which grow in intensity with each passing day. In an effort to find out what’s happening to their daughter, George - who by this point has regained his sight - asks his colleague, Professor Wiler (Enzo Marino Bellanich) if he can decipher the unusual markings on Susie’s amulet.

But it isn’t until the concerned parents meet the mysterious Mercato (Cosimo Cinieri) that they understand the danger young Susie is in, and how little time they have to save their daughter from the terrible curse that has taken hold of her.

When interviewed by Anchor Bay in 2001 for the DVD release of Manhattan Baby, Dardano Sacchetti, who along with co-writing this 1982 film had also worked with Fulci on Zombie and the Gates of Hell trilogy (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery), said that, with Manhattan Baby, he wanted to “disconnect” himself from those previous films, which were more traditionally gothic, and take horror in a new direction. Unfortunately, the film’s budget was slashed, leaving little money for special effects, most of which are of the electronic variety, i.e. flashing lights and glowing doorways, as opposed to Fulci’s standard blood and gore (save one scene towards the end, when a character has a violent encounter with some re-animated stuffed birds).

Sacchetti also informs us that the opening in Egypt and an exorcism scene late in the film were added by the producer, who feared he would have a hard time selling the movie without them (the Egyptian scenes were to give Manhattan Baby an international feel, while the exorcism was an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of The Exorcist). While I will admit the exorcism is wholly ineffective, the Egyptian sequences are the movie’s strongest, and most of what transpires during the rest of Manhattan Baby ranges from slightly odd to “where the hell did that come from”?

At one point, Emily brings a co-worker, Luke (Carlo De Mejo), home with her, in the hopes he might be able to calm the children. Trying to show Susie and Tommy that there’s nothing to fear, Luke walks upstairs and opens the door to their bedroom, only to vanish into thin air when he’s enveloped by a strange light (along with whisking Luke away, this light leaves behind some Egyptian sand, now covering most of the bedroom floor). Even stranger is what happens to Professor Wiler as he’s studying a polaroid picture of Susie’s amulet. Sitting in his office at home, he’s attacked by a cobra that appears out of nowhere. Fulci adds some flair to the scene by shooting a portion of it from the approaching cobra’s perspective, but it’s such an “out-of-left-field” moment that you’ll be scratching your head, trying to make sense of it all.

Story has never been one of Fulci’s strongest suits; even The Beyond, one of my favorite movies of all-time, features scenes that don’t make a lick of sense (i.e. – the tarantulas). What The Beyond has that Manhattan Baby does not, however, is a hell of a lot of style coupled with that always-enticing Fulci gore, an area in which the great filmmaker excelled (the blood and guts usually proved enough to take our minds off any questionable plot developments). Manhattan Baby features a few violent scenes; along with the stuffed bird attack already mentioned, a guide who accompanies George into the Egyptian tomb at the outset falls through a trap door onto some pretty gnarly spikes. But the horror in this film is more of the supernatural variety, with a dash of the psychological mixed in, making it an atypical Lucio Fulci movie as well as a disappointment.

The problem with Manhattan Baby may have been, as Sacchetti suggests, that they tried to make a “million dollar movie with a budget of $300 thousand dollars”, but I think the film’s fractured, confusing narrative had more to do with Fulci being a little out of his element. As he did with Zombie and the Gates of Hell movies, Fulci does manage to sneak a few flashes of brilliance into Manhattan Baby, but there simply aren’t enough of them to cover up its shortcomings.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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