Director: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci and Giorgio Mariuzzo
Cast: Jared Martin (as Dr. Robert Anderson); Lara Lamberti as Eva Gordon); Ulli Reinthaler (as Jenny Clark); Sophie d'Aulan (as Kim); Jennifer Naud (as Grace O'Neal); Riccardo Acerbi (as Fred Vernon); Kathi Wise (as Virginia Williams); Milijana Zirojevic (as Kathy)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #102
Synopsis: When the daughter of an all-girl school concierge is hit by a car during a cruel prank, leaving her comatose in a hospital, a new student Eva (Lara Lamberti) immediately starts to act strangely. That hospitalised girl Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic), with the help of a mother with supernatural powers, can control Eva with psychic powers that distort reality, using the transfer student as a puppet to gain revenge on all those involved with Kathy's accident and the cruel prank against her.
Late era Lucio Fulci is an area of his career rarely looked upon well and only getting reconsidered now with Blu-Ray restorations. Whenever this point was reached - I'd argue its 1982 with The New York Ripper, a notorious and offensive film for many but still one of his most well known - the films after are viewed with less interest. I love Conquest the year after in 1983, but after that it's a combination of negative critical thought amongst Fulci fans and the lack of availability of the films at points which has not helped them. Honestly, as an unapologetic Italian genre film fan who even now loves the crass and dumb entries, there's a cut off period where the lowering budget and TV's death grip on the Italian entertainment industry was slowly suffocating the country's wonderful genre boom from the sixties to the early eighties. The late eighties has some gasps of kitsch joy, but for the few films which stood out critically - Opera (1987) to Cemetery Man (1994) - the Italian genre film industry was dying painfully, symbolically shown in some way when Fulci himself finally died in 1996. The extras for 88 Films releases in the UK - even outdoing Arrow Video in documenting this period with the directors, production technicians and actors from the period - have started to paint for me a fascinating chronology of this period in Italian genre cinema, sandwiched between optimism (Joe D'Amato starting up Filmirage) and the grim foregone conclusion of the industry. Fulci himself, as the industry was trying to survive, had to cope as much with his declining health, and considering how uncomfortably thin he is in his Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo in Aenigma, it's not a surprise to learn a year later in Zombi 3 (1988) he could only complete part of a film shot in the Philippines where the heat effected his ill health significantly.
The films themselves? So far from the Fulci films of the late eighties, kitsch schlock of erratic qualities concluding with A Cat in the Brain (1990), made from clips from existing films from the "Lucio Fulci Presents" series, a group of horror productions including two directed by Fulci himself, alongside new footage for a truly weird meta movie. However, as someone who has come to love Italian genre cinema, even the late eighties films now have a compelling nature to them, stuck between the last gasps of artistry and absolutely enjoyment vulgarity. They are a curious drug to take - between the eighties perms and gaudy colour - not for everyone but strangely addictive. Fulci's own films, as a fan who thinks he exists as his own singular figure above many other Italian genre directors, also possess virtues if you're willing the panhandle through their absurdities. Especially in the context of the kind of terrible, cheap films made nowadays on video, the late eighties films are still a significant notch higher in quality that you can still appreciate.
Riffing on Carrie (1976) amongst other films, the late eighties seeps over Aenigma so much that it can be divisive even for fans of The Beyond (1981) and earlier Fulci films. It's amazing how, even outside of Italian horror films to ones from around the world like the US, where the baroque or grounded artistry of a lot of the movies from the early eighties suddenly morphed into neon, aerobics and unisex perms. There's a drastic shift in tone even next to some of cheesier earlier eighties movies coming from Italy when they got to the late eighties, when fads like aerobics get their own scene in Aenigma to the failed attempt to pretend it's set in Boston, USA with its various pop culture posters on the walls. As the hair got noticeably bigger, horror films from various countries, even in the US, started to have a gaudier tone than ones from only a few years earlier, something that can be found in slasher films to Fulci's work over in Italy, all of them still engaging in their colourful camp but an abrupt switch from the more decadent artistry of low budget horror films from before to something more chintzy.
Noticeably, failing to look like it's on American soil, the cold Eastern European architecture especially for the central school actually helps the film immensely rather than hinder it, blending with this late eighties aesthetic with unexpected results. Considering only a year later Fulci partially shot Zombi 3 in the Philippines, and seeing how that film looks so different from this with its jungle locations and sweltering atmosphere, Aenigma at least has its own distinct personality. Being a Yugoslavian co-production, with cast members both from there and other European countries, does stand out against a lot of other Italian horror films, and even if Aenigma is undeniably campy in tone, the more muted colours and all the stark white of the rooms is effective on a low budget, a curious mix of Fulci's gothic films and septic, modernism. There is even some great ambition with use of model buildings, noticeable but leading to aerial shots that not only stand out, particularly for anyone who has sat through A Cat in the Brain from three years later, but emphasises a sense of artificiality that gives Aenigma Fulci's trademark dreamlike quality.
Even the tackier aspects have now becoming charming for me knowing what to expect from these late eighties Italo-genre films. Sadly the English dubbing is more variable in these era of the country's genre filmmaking, as Aenigma also shows audibly, but especially knowing the struggles the industry had to deal with there's an undeniable charm through most of them unless you're truly scraping the barrel. I'd never thought I would see a Lucio Fulci film whose first scene is scored to yacht rock, but it's impossible for me either to hate it. In fact there's an amusing game in just spotting all the licensed figures on the posters in the background and recognising them alone, Tom Cruise making a recurring cameo that, with a strategically used thumbs up after a certain death scene, is actually hilarious even if it was unintentional.
Abstract Spectrum: Mindbender/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
A large portion of Aenigma has to be taken, to fully appreciate it, as if viewed through a hazed stupor, one of those cases where frankly, for every good moment, the others have to be viewed for how silly they are, where even cheesy dialogue is part of the strange tone the whole movie has. Also helping is that this is still Fulci which has an illogical nature to its world, redeeming the film immensely. It's only the romantic subplot, where Eva falls in love with Dr. Robert Anderson (Jared Martin), the doctor keeping an eye on Kathy in hospital, when the film does grind to a halt and there's the sense I'd presumed these later Italian films as having of being asinine and flimsy. In truth, even a film that's technical "bad" can still sustain itself, even if for a smaller audience, if it can generate a sustained air of heightened momentum. The problem usually stems from most films deciding instead to put all its eggs in a basket for an emotional drama, like romantic subplots, which aren't well written or compelling. Thankfully Aenigma is more like an odd funhouse of gristly weirdness but you do have to put up with the drama even if you appreciate the gaudier taste to it.
The horror scenes themselves are what makes the film entertaining - in many ways, while it would've been the trait of Fulci's films that'd typecast him negatively in his career for many years, it's how he creates his scenes of terror and gore which make his horror films stand out, dipping the stories with unconventional, dream tones. A film like Aenigma is more a series of them on a loose thread of narrative, making it self-defeating to criticise the film on that level next to more dramatic, serious entries in the genre when Fulci's cinema was constantly lapping into the irrational over the eighties.
Death by snails is the infamous moment of Aenigma, making it a perfect double bill with Juan Piquer Simón's Slugs (1988) in spite of the scene actually being a nude woman being smothered by living escargot on mass, immediately sympathy for the actress gained from having to shoot such an awkward, gross scene for real laid under them. All the deaths, following the lack of rules allowed through Kathy being able to manipulate reality from her hospital bed, follow an elaborate and original way between all of them. From death by mirror doppelganger to living statues in a museum, even if they have somewhat cheap effects they still stand out for their unnatural qualities. One sequence is actually one of the strongest in Lucio Fulci's career, a person trying to escape a bedroom where a decapitated corpse is only for each door they go through to go back to the original bedroom, firmly entrenching Aenigma in a nightmarish tone for one brief moment, the moment within the film, for all its silliness before and after, that's legitimately well executed and makes the rest of it worth sitting through. That this is also the scene where Tom Cruise's cameo sticks out perfectly just adds to it, making the film's existence worthy for it.
Whether Aenigma is abstract enough to go on the list was to debate, only to remember however that The Black Cat (1981) got on; if it can, Aenigma had to. It's not as surreal as the likes of The Beyond or A Cat in the Brain, those films by various qualities possessing the right mix of atmosphere or absolute weirdness to stand out more. But even with a lesser entry in his career, Fulci's movies always stood out in how more delicately obscurer they were in tone for the better; knowing full well how he would go off script a lot with his films is testament to this, but an even bigger aspect is knowing even here, with complete honesty that Aenigma is ridiculous and exceptionally flawed, there was still the weird magic of his earlier, best work still here.
Definitely a film for hardcore Fulci fans first, not newcomers to his filmography unless you appreciate late eighties camp greatly. Contrary to negative reviews of it, and a lot of the late eighties Italian horror films, there's still a compelling excess and style to them even with the visibly restricted look Aenigma has. It's not high art even in Fulci's career, where there's actual candidates earlier in his career for great genre films, but having always been warned about his later career after the late eighties being lesser and lesser quality, Aenigma is a higher bar above the expectations even in terms of trashy cinema with personality to it.