Movie of the Month: The Psychic (1977)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BritneeBrandon, and Alli watch The Psychic (1977).

Boomer:  Sette note in nero (literally Seven Notes in Black), marketed as The Psychic in the United States (among other missteps in the American marketing, including essentially spoiling the film with the English tag line) is a Lucio Fulci film about a woman who has a psychic vision. Jennifer O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, a woman who has recently married a rich Italian (Francesco, played by Gianni Garko). When he leaves to go on a business trip, she decides to visit one of his unoccupied properties, intending to renovate. On her way to this farmhouse, she experiences a psychic vision detailing a red room, a tipped-over bust, a point of view of a wall being constructed “A Cask of Amontillado” style, and various other blinking lights and and images. Recognizing one of the rooms in the farmhouse from her vision, she tears down a section of the wall and discovers that there is a dead body behind it. Her husband is, naturally, arrested, but Virginia seeks to clear her husband’s name with the help of her sister-in-law Gloria (Ida Galli) and her parapsychologist friend, Luca (Marc Porel).

Unlike a great deal of Fulci’s ouevre, The Psychic is not a particularly gory or bloody film. Compare this, for instance, to The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and the greater part of his body of work, which feature lots of gore in the Romero vein. The film’s bloodiest moment comes at the very beginning, and in fact seems like part of another Fulci film that has been grafted on to the beginning of this one, and serves only to establish that our main character has experienced a psychic vision before. The rest of the deaths that are depicted, while perhaps not bloodless, are fairly restrained in comparison to the rest of the director’s body of work. Instead, Fulci focuses on the anxiety and the terror of the drama that unfolds onscreen. There are a lot of beautiful shots, like the overhead crane shot of our protagonist and her husband riding horses, the blinking red light of a taxicab’s radio, and various shots of the Italian countryside. All of this contributes to a film that is a very different animal from most of Fulci’s work, but is nonetheless my favorite of his films.

Brandon, one of my favorite things about The Psychic it is its score. Unlike the heavily synthesized scores of Argento’s work or the tense scores of other giallo films, this film features a simple seven note leit motif (the titular seven notes in black, or, as in my preferred translation, seven notes in the dark) that is not only haunting, but integral to the narrative as well. How did you feel about this musical arrangement? Do you think that the film would work as well if the score was not so innately tied to the plot?

Brandon: The most immediately noticeable aspect of the music in The Psychic is that it often isn’t noticeable at all. The central seven note theme that intrudes whenever Virginia picks apart the crime scene from her visions is certainly memorable and helps to shape the film’s tone. Otherwise, like Boomer says, the score is not nearly as conspicuous as the aggressively proggy sounds we’re used to hearing in our giallo fare, especially in Argento’s work. Instead, there’s a softness to The Psychic‘s music that often allows it to fade into the background until the central motif, the titular seven notes, presents itself again. This softness reminds me of the swanky opening credits sequence for the last giallo picture we covered as a Movie of the Month selection, Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. This isn’t necessarily because they sound at all similar, but because they’re more tonally at odds with a traditional horror aesthetic than, say, Goblin’s infamous (an oddly spoiler-filled) score for SuspiriaThe Psychic’s score is distinctly feminine to me in a way that matches the film’s overriding Agatha Christie soap opera tone. Blood & Black Lace deviates from giallo’s usual rock n’ roll psychedelia sounds to mirror the high class cocktail party soirees of its fashion world setting; the feminine energy of The Psychic‘s score is closely tied to Virginia’s inner life in a similar way as she mentally unravels the mystery of her visions. It presents a headspace that gets distinctly more haunting in its central motif whenever her mind returns to the details of the room where she discovers the body. It’s difficult to imagine bursts of synthy prog disrupting that insular tone in any way that wouldn’t be annoying, despite that being the traditional mode of the genre.

Speaking of giallo as a genre, it’s something we usually discuss in terms of stylized horror filmmaking, despite it earning its name from pulpy mystery novels. More often than not, the extreme violence & flashy style-over-substance filmmaking craft of giallo pictures outshine any narrative concerns with their central murder mysteries. I didn’t find that to be the case with The Psychic. Instead of flooding the screen with constant murders & psychedelic montages, The Psychic spills all of its (red acrylic) blood & incomprehensible imagery upfront in the form of Virginia’s visions. It then spends the rest of the runtime piecing them out one by one: a magazine, a lamp, a lit cigarette, a mirror, etc. This makes for a much more interesting mystery than a typical whodunnit for me, because it doesn’t only ask the identity of the killer. It also asks who is the victim, whether the crime has even happened yet, and whether it will happen at all. In a broad sense, The Psychic follows a very common horror trope of a woman sensing evil in the world and being told she’s crazy or irrational by the men around her. The structure Fulci uses to tell that story is anything but conventional, however, and I very much appreciated his patience in parsing out the details of how all the individual puzzle pieces fit snuggly together and in what order they did or will arrive.

Britnee, did you also appreciate that the psychedelic flashes of imagery slowed down after Virginia’s initial visions or would you rather that the whole movie had stuck to that exciting style-over-substance energy? Did the film’s unconventional structure & psychic visions conceit make you care about the answers to its central mystery more than you typically would with other giallo films?

Britnee: I haven’t seen many psychic movies, and I’m not even sure that there are many out there, but of those I’ve have watched (mainly The Gift), there’s usually a buttload of psychic visions from beginning to end. By keeping the psychic visions at a minimum, The Psychic really allows viewers to focus on every little detail in Virginia’s few visions. As Brandon stated earlier, the majority of the film is spent examining all these little details from Virginia’s visions and showing their connection to the murder that has yet to happen. I have a pretty short attention span, so being able to see the same visions over and over again without any change helped me really enjoy this movie, because I could keep up with piecing all the clues together. I was able to play detective, even though I completely sucked at it. I thought that her husband was a sex trafficker that would kill young women and hide them in the walls of his huge abandoned mansion. Little did I know the mystery was centered around a stolen painting. So yes, I definitely cared about piecing the puzzle together more than most other giallo films I’ve seen. Giallo films mostly deal with straight up murders, so it’s obvious that the killer will eventually surface, but with The Psychic, not only was I trying to figure out who the killer was, but I was also trying to figure out where the murder took place, if it really took place, and most importantly, what all that sludgy goo in the darkness was (it ended up being cement and bricks).

There’s no doubt that this film is a giallo, but there’s not a whole lot of bloody, slashed-up bodies like in most giallo films. Interestingly enough, the film starts out with a very violent and disturbing scene. Virginia is a schoolgirl and she has a vision of her mother committing suicide by jumping off a cliff; and when I say violent, I mean violent. Usually when someone jumps off a cliff in a movie, it’s understood that that person will die. Sometimes there’s even a shot of the body all smashed up at the bottom. The jumping-off-a-cliff scene in The Psychic was definitely one of a kind. The camera follows her mother’s body as her face chips away against the cliff’s rough, rocky edges. There’s even a fun little crunchy sound that’s made after each hit. For such an intense opening, I thought this was going to be one sick and bloody flick. To my surprise, there would only be a few other bloody scenes (the murder in the vision and the fall in the church).

While I truly enjoyed this film and can’t wait to watch it again, the ending really got under my skin. I usually like movie endings that leave unanswered questions, but I really wanted to know if Virginia would make it out of the wall alive. One would assume that her body would be found since the music of her watch could be heard, but as to whether or not she’ll be found alive or dead is really unclear.

Alli, were you disappointed with the way the movie ended? Would you have liked to see Virginia survive? Or would you rather see Virginia fulfill the prophecy in her visions?

Alli: I really liked the gradual, grim realization that she was the intended victim and watching her slow acceptance of the truth. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed when the movie ended, but I was certainly taken aback. I expected them to dig her out or for Francesco to fight his way through Luca and the ineffectual cops. I guess I was just expecting the typical giallo bloodbath to occur right there at the end, while the rest of the police force and detectives are racing to get out to the palazzo. Ending it right there was a refreshing level of restraint. Boomer already mentioned “A Cask of Amontillado”, but the end had a very “The Tell-Tale Heart” feel with the soft chimes ringing out Francesco’s guilt through the wall. Personally, I’m pro her being found too late. It adds a sense of symmetry, ending the film where it began.

That being said, for once in a giallo movie, except for Phenomena (big soft spot for Jennifer Connelly) or Suspiria, I actually really liked the main character. I feel like she wasn’t the typical blank slate female or wannabe detective male. Yes, she still turns into a bit of a damsel at the end, but she doesn’t let the other people’s skepticism invalidate her hunches. She knocks through a wall. She’s not just out to prove her husband’s innocence; she’s searching for answers. I feel like The Psychic gave its female characters more agency than other movies in this genre do in general. For instance, Bruna, Luca’s secretary, is a research beast, not Luca’s love interest. She is never put through the typical trials giallo movies throw at independent women, nor is she stalked down and killed. She gets respect and credit for her clever work and skills, and has a big part in the investigation.

Boomer, what did you think of the female characters in this movie? Would you agree that they don’t get the usual vaguely/overtly misogynistic treatment giallo movies inflict on them?

Boomer: I’m so glad you mentioned Bruna, who is a delight in this movie. She reminded me a great deal of Gianna, Daria Nicolodi’s character in Profundo Rosso. They have the same bubbly effusiveness, same insightful and inquisitive personality, and even the same haircut and fashion sense. That film is notable in Argento’s canon in that it, too, is more progressive than the usual giallo crop: one scene shows the male protagonist declaring to Gianna that men are more intelligent than women, only for her to correctly point out that she had put together the same conclusion that he had from available clues, and faster; he retorts that men are at least physically stronger. Later in the film, he is knocked unconscious and left in a burning house, only to be rescued and dragged to safety by the diminutive Gianna, showing that she possesses more strength than he credited her as well. Bruna is usually two steps ahead of Luca, who’s surprisingly disinterested in Virginia’s visions until she’s in demonstrable danger, and she has intuitive thought processes (like when she independently researched the history of radio taxis in the area) without which the plot would grind to a halt. Unlike Gianna, Bruna isn’t belittled by her male counterpart.

This unusual-for-the-genre feminism (understated and mild though it may be) is definitely one of the things that most impressed me when I first saw this film. My love for Argento is, I am sure, common knowledge to regular readers of our site; when I think of giallo, Argento’s is the work that first comes to mind. It’s interesting that you and I both went for references to Edgar Allan Poe and to Argento with our analysis of this film, as Poe was widely known influence on Argento and his work, as evidenced by his segment of Two Evil Eyes (you even mentioned Phenomena, my personal favorite!). There’s a connection there that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially with regards to certain misogynistic myths and devices that we see over over again both in Poe’s work and Argento’s work, and the larger society-enshrining machine that we call narrative, like the Madonna/Whore Complex, the sexualization of violence against women, and the infantilization of female intelligence.

Virginia’s role is unusual in that we rarely see women getting to play the everyman role in this genre, either. Genre fiction is overflowing with Neos and Harry Potters and Luke Skywalker: neutral masks unto whom the (presumed male by default) audience can project themselves with no difficulty. We usually only get to see this type of characterization for women in romance novels and rom-coms, usually to the point of insult. In horror, female protagonists are usually unique in characterization, like your Ellen Ripleys, Sidney Prescotts, and Nancy Thompsons. When the two ideals intersect, you usually end up with a Bella Swann. The Psychic is different: despite her fabulous sense of personal dress, Virginia is a bit of a blank slate. She’s recently married to a man she doesn’t know very well, meaning that all of her relationships (save her friendship with Luca) are new and thus still forming; she has no family to speak of. She’s adventurous and engaging, but she’s also generic enough that the viewer slips into the mental space of her character with great ease. It’s definitely not a standard giallo.

Also redefining what it means to be a woman in giallo is Ida Galli’s Gloria, Virginia’s sister in law. Gloria is idly rich, but her haughtiness is more detached than indifferent, and she drops her cold facade when the severity of the danger to her brother’s future becomes clear. She also genuinely cares about Virginia, and is taken aback when Virginia snaps at her and calls her a brat; I almost get the feeling that she was trying to treat this newest member of the family like one of her girlfriends, and Virginia’s interpretation was informed by some culture clash. I also appreciate the fact that Gloria’s promiscuouness is present but never commented upon; she has a lot of “friends” who give her expensive gifts, but she’s never demonized for or endangered by her lifestyle. In a way, she serves to be a mirror of Virginia. So often, when we seek a definition of what makes a Strong Female Character, we find a great deal of discussion about characterization and motivation, with the end goal being to make women on the page as well-defined as their male counterparts; rarely do we see the also important need for ladies as Tabula Rasa, embodied in Virginia here. Gloria is her opposite, a woman with clearly defined attributes and character traits, to balance Virginia onscreen.

In the same vein of unexpected progressivism, something occurred to me on this watch that hadn’t before. I was always struck by how casually Gloria mentions Luca to Francesco. Francesco himself harbors no jealousy for Luca, as if having his wife spend time with her (devilishly handsome) friend is no cause for alarm. Although he should have no compulsions about Virginia’s platonic relationship with Luca, it would be more aligned with his character as betrayed, unless he had reason to assume that Luca is completely harmless. What I’m getting at is that Luca can be read as homosexual, despite their being no confirmation of that textually. Do you think I’m grasping at straws here, Brandon, or did you get that feeling as well? Do you have any of your own extratextual character interpretations you’d like to share?

Brandon: To be honest, that reading of Luca’s sexuality never occurred to me on the first watch, but that might just have been another result of the film’s notably progressive, empathetic character work. I am so used to men who are coded as gay in giallo films (among other vintage exploitation genres) to be such over the top, cartoonish caricatures that their sexual orientation is unignorable, often to the point of being a homophobic joke. Speaking of Argento, I remember Four Flies on Grey Velvet being especially egregious on thaat front. I had interpreted Francesco’s conspicuous disinterest in Luca as an extension of his general self-absorption. This might count as an extratextual character interpretation on my part, but to me Francesco doesn’t seem at all that interested in anything his wife is up to, her friends included. That only changes when her snooping leads to him being suspected for murder. I totally buy that interpretation of Luca as a legitimate possibility, though. It would at the very least fit in with the film’s overall egalitarian, empathetic approach to characters like Gloria & Virginia. It’ll certainly be something I keep in mind in future revisits of The Psychic, as it would be a welcome variation on typical giallo homophobia, but I honestly didn’t pay that much attention to Luca as a character on the first run through. Women like the clairvoyant Virginia & the Cruella de Ville-ish Gloria were much stronger standouts than any of the men in the film, including the one who ended up being the killer.

Besides its refreshing shift away from giallo’s typically macho genre trappings, The Psychic is also notable for the way it plays with time. Virginia’s visions have an A Christmas Carol way of touching on all three sectors of time: past, present, and future. Virginia’s vision of her mother’s suicide as a child was a clairvoyant glimpse of the present (besides being an absurdly grotesque opening to a fairly muted murder mystery). Her visions of the objects in the Murder Room end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy of a future crime that hasn’t even unfolded. At the same time, the curiosity her vision sparks uncovers a victim from a past murder that had somehow gone by uninvestigated. This temporal experimentation follows a much less conventional narrative structure than what I’m used to seeing in most giallo films, which typically function as proto-slasher, body count-focused exploitation pieces, as beautiful as they are to the eye.

Britnee, how did the relationship between Time & Virginia’s visions affect your own experience with The Psychic? What do the inclusion of the opening present-tense suicide & the discovery of the past murder victim add to Virginia’s visions of her future fate?

Britnee: The way Virginia’s visions relate to the past, present, and future caused me to go a little cross-eyed from having my mind blown. Her visions initially leading her to the skeleton in the mansion walls tricked me into truly believing that those violent visions were clues that would lead to solving that poor woman’s murder. Once realizing that the visions were actually intended for Virginia’s own future demise, I began to think of what was the point of having a young woman’s skeleton stuck in wall and how it contributed to completing the puzzle. My light bulb moment in the midst of all this mystery went off at this point; Virginia was intended to find the body because it helped her come to the realization that her visions were of the future and not the past. Her fixation on determining the reason for this young woman’s brutal death led her to one of the most riveting moments in the movie: the discovery of the true date on the magazine that contained a cover photo of the woman in the wall. Poor Virginia was teased by her own visions, thinking she was solving a crime of the past, only to find herself being buried alive in the wall in the end. Having that initial vision of seeing her mother committing suicide at the film’s beginning really leads the audience to assume what Virginia sees is happening in the moment, but I guess that’s not how psychic visions work. Although I have an interest in supernatural phenomena, I don’t know much about psychic visions. How do those with psychic abilities know if they are seeing the past, present, or future? Perhaps if Virginia sought out training for her ability, she would have been able to be more in tune with her gift.

When it comes to figuring out how her vision of her mother’s suicide contributes to her visions of her own death, I’m not exactly sure how that vision contributes to her fate, but it does contribute to the fact that all her visions deal with death. There’s never any indication that she’s had a vision that led to something more positive, like a marriage, birth, etc. Maybe her gift only allowed her to see visions of deaths for those in her bloodline? I think knowing a little more about her mother’s background would have added more to the story. We’re sort of just hit with this intense death/psychic vision with little explanation right at the beginning. Just a little dialogue from the mother as she drove to the cliff would have been great.

Other than the film’s unforgettable plot, I really enjoyed all its artistic aspects, especially the psychedelic close ups of Virginia’s eyes before she has a vision. It’s almost cartoonish, but in the most tasteful way possible. Alli, what are some visuals in the film that you particularly enjoyed?

Alli: I, too, really liked the scenes where she’s about to have a vision. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is in the very beginning when she’s going through the tunnel. There’s all these quick cuts and flashes of light. It builds so much tension. After the gruesome opening suicide, it lured me into thinking her husbands plane was about to crash and that she was going to see visions of that. It wasn’t a let down for there to be an unsolved murder, though. The quick moments when the murder cryptically unfolds are really effective: the blinking red light, the mortar oozing out of the bricks, the dead woman, and the overturned bust.’

In the tunnel, she’s just plunged into darkness with a little spot of glaring light on the other side. There’s also the scene where they’re unveiling the palazzo where everything is dark until the blinding light as the shades are being lifted. The use of that contrast is really great, and maybe a not too subtle metaphor about the world being illuminated and the truth coming to light. Both sort of feel like they’re gradually revealing a new world to her, the tunnel being one where she’s seen a dark secret and the palazzo where she’s introduced to the crime scene.

One of my favorite things about any giallo is the iconic use of red. It’s a standard across the genre, but I love it every time; be it used as a warning symbol, to make it seem like the set is tinted with blood, or just because. I’m just into it. This movie is definitely no exception, and uses it in conjunction with the clues in both rooms where murders happen. The first glimpse of this all red room was gorgeous. The wall paper and chairs and drapery are just spooky and eerie enough for a dead body to fit in there, but there’s also a sense of class. I disagree with Virginia when she says, “Only an old person would live in a room like that.” There’s also the red lamp in the palazzo ex-bedroom. It casts a bit of half light on her face, and I thought that was a great shot.

Lagniappe

Boomer: For what it’s worth, I’ve always read the final scene as ambiguous, but leaned on the side of Virginia being rescued from the wall. Admittedly, I never considered the possibility that she might be discovered too late . . .

Brandon: It makes me somewhat of an asshole, but I have to admit I got a little bit of a laugh out of this film’s opening suicide. It can’t be understated how bizarre of an introduction it is to see that mannequin-esque body double Superman its way down the side of the cliff and smash its bloody face against every rock on the way down. I don’t think I was necessarily laughing at The Psychic for beginning that way, but it was such a bold, unexpected opener that my first reaction was to guffaw at its audacity. Whether or not any humor was intended in that moment, it was certainly an effective way to grab my attention as an audience. I had no idea what was coming next, but that mannequin’s bloodied face promised it would be something memorable.

If I may also briefly weigh in on Virginia’s ultimate fate at the opposite end of the film, I believed her to clearly be dead by the credits, an assumption the tagline on the film’s absurdly spoilery poster seems to support. I do love that its ambiguity has left enough room for that conclusion to be debatable, though.

Alli: I love this movie’s attention to detail. There’s just such a consistency and nothing feels ignored. Like any good murder movie or show, we the audience are expected to pick up on the clues to put things together: the red room, the broken mirror, the changed furniture, the same kind of bricks that were used in the walling, the magazine, the cigarettes, and last but not least the alarm on the watch. Those twelve revealing notes.

Britnee: Almost each time Virginia’s name was stated throughout The Psychic, that horrible yet extremely catchy radio hit, “Meet Virginia” by Train would play in my head. I think it would be so cool if one of those fake music videos on YouTube was made for that song using scenes from this film. Imagine those bloody visions flashing on the screen when the chorus hits. I completely suck at doing anything that tech-heavy, so I’m just putting the request out there hoping that someone has enough free time and talent to make this a reality.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

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5 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: The Psychic (1977)

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