Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Aenigma (1987)

Escargot, that French delicacy that everyone wishes they could afford, but no one actually wants to eat.  Even if it’s slathered in garlic and butter, like in Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma, the prospect of eating some chewy gastropod with the consistency of snot holds little appeal.  In fairness, I’m sure there are, in fact, people who genuinely like escargot, but I don’t know any of them, thus no sane person craves them (this is a stone fact and totally not confirmation bias or somesuch).  But let’s be honest, if it weren’t for the continental air and the sheer status symbolism of their expense, snails would rarely be consumed in this country (outside of people stuck in the wilderness who have no other option).  I stand by this opinion.  Let’s not forget that these little bastards can be deadly, too.  They cover a victim in this film, smothering her, including one “I bought this from a gumball machine” slug that works its way into the girl’s mouth (surely, not a metaphor for anything).  Clearly, Fulci understood that snails are more horrific than savory to the vast majority of his audience (I ponder how this sequence played in France).  Considering the film’s director, I’m kind of surprised that the snails didn’t rip this girl apart with their tiny, fang-festooned maws (they don’t actually have teeth, but there is no way this scene cannot be compared to the pipe-cleaner spider scene from The Beyond).

Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic) gets all dolled up to go on a big date with Fred (Riccardo Acerbi), the gym instructor at St. Mary’s College in Boston, which she attends.  The two-faced, prick friends of hers, however, have set her up for humiliation, and, after being chased into traffic and put in a coma, Kathy finds her mind free to exact revenge through the body of new student Eva (Lara Lamberti).  The more I think of it, the more this plot follows that of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 (and, I’m sure, many others, but Prom Night 2 was a recent watch for me, so…).  Ah, well.

Fulci, it would seem, is something of a critic-proof director (at least in genre circles).  The worst thing I ever saw of his was Manhattan Baby, yet even that turkey couldn’t dissuade my rather high opinion of the filmmaker.  I think this allowance the man is given stems from two aspects of his filmography.  First, you’re guaranteed to see at least one thing in each of his films that you won’t see almost anywhere else.  Witness: the zombie versus shark scene from Zombie, if you have any doubt.  There is imagination at work in his films, despite the fact that sometimes he’s able to pull off the effect he desires and sometimes he isn’t (see the aforementioned spider scene).  But his films try so hard, one can’t help but be charmed both by their earnest ambition and their lunatic grotesqueries.  Second, the man and his movies unashamedly play to the peanut gallery.  Despite the themes that his films may or may not have (largely that the world is shit, and the people in it are shitheels), they are pulp entertainment, first and foremost, grand guignol for the spaghetti set.  Consequently, Fulci curries favor that other splatter meisters don’t/can’t, flying in the face of all sense, and it’s glorious.

Aenigma follows in line with this assessment.  To wit: Kathy is pursued by what, in any other movie, could be termed a lynch mob, and the revelers cackle and bray at the tops of their lungs.  It reminds me of a rib-tickler that the Joker tells in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel.  Basically, the punchline illustrates (with a moment of people screaming in a new dad’s face) that people are vicious, life is cruel, and it’s all a massive joke on us.  Kathy’s physician, Doctor Anderson (Jared Martin), not only can’t figure out why a braindead vegetable can “experience a violent emotion” but also can, apparently, read her mind in order to come up with this diagnosis in the first place.  He’s also completely not above chasing after girls half his age and all but fucking them in open view of anyone with eyes in their head (I’m including blind people in this statement, he’s that brazen).  A marble statue “comes to life” and chokes someone to death.  The beauty here is that the statue is actually an extremely obvious rubber suit.  Doctor Anderson wears a sweatshirt that simply states “University” (shades of John Blutarsky from Animal House).  Kathy’s mom, Crazy Mary (Dusica Zegarac), is the most pale, pasty-faced, pasta-haired nutso you can envision.  Her eyes turn red for no reason (is Kathy possessing her mother?  Is her mother the power behind Kathy?  Is the college’s faculty populated with witches/Satanists/bad apples?  Who knows?  Who cares?).  That’s just a smattering of the gonzo goings on at work here.

The intriguing thing is not so much the supernatural revenge idea as the classism taking place within this context.  Kathy is, of course, the Carrie White character (or Patrick, if you like that movie more), and she is as innocently gormless as they come.  She’s Melvin the Mop Boy from The Toxic Avenger, just a girl and slightly more restrained.  Furthermore, she is dirt poor, her mother’s job at the college providing the gateway for her to attend the exclusive institution for free.  This, in conjunction with her working class origin, places her beneath the other girls at the school and beneath contempt.  She is a thing to be mocked and tormented.  Consequently, Kathy’s vengeance is a strike back at the upper classes, and I would suggest that the forms of her vengeance imply a turning of the markers of high society back on their partakers.  Hence, we get things like a work of fine art dripping blood on a girl.  There are the previously noted marble statue and snail deaths.  An egoist of the fitness variety is strangled by a doppelganger.  The things the upper crust champion are the same things which enable their ends (mostly).     

Nonetheless, this wouldn’t be a Fulci film without a fetishization of the human eye.  The very first shot of the movie is a closeup on Kathy’s eyes as she puts on her makeup (while somebody croons, “put on your makeup”).  After the possession begins, there are a great many extreme closeups of eyes, sometimes with quick zooms, sometimes without.  Eyes in Aenigma are symbols of hatred, burrowing into the souls of others while simultaneously revealing the soul of the gazer.  It’s interesting to note, then, that there is no actual eyeball trauma in the film, which may upset some Fulci fanatics.  I can’t say I wasn’t expecting some ocular carnage, and the denial of this desire presents a subversion of this expectation from the man.  While the film does stand on its own well enough, a little eye pokery would, however, have made for a comfier watch (like waiting for Henny Youngman to deliver his “Take my wife.  Please” zinger).

MVT:  Lamberti is very easy on the eye, and she plays possessively bitchy as well as she does passionately vindictive.

Make or Break: The credits/opening sequence is as quintessentially Eighties Eurohorror as anything could be, for better and worse. 

Score:  6.25/10

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