Perversion Story Review
Warning: this review contains major spoilers for both this film and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. If you haven't seen both of them, I advise you to skip to the technical section.
When Dr. George Dumurrier's (Jean Sorel) wife Susan (Marisa Mell) dies suddenly during a vicious asthma attack, the young clinician stands to inherit $2 million. The convenience of this situation does not escape the attention of the authorities, and their suspicions are raised further by the news that George has started associating with a stripper named Monica Weston (Mell again), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his supposedly dead wife. As the net closes in, and George finds himself accused first of conspiring with his wife to commit fraud and then of murdering her, his lover Jane (Elsa Martinelli) is forced to take matters into her own hands to unravel the mystery and prove his innocence.
Una Sull'Altra, released in English-speaking territories as One on Top of the Other and in France as Perversion Story, might be described, without overstating the case too heavily, as Lucio Fulci's re-envisioning of Vertigo. Just as Dario Argento would, in 1975, go on to invert Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup with his seminal Deep Red, Fulci encroached on Hitchcockian territory in 1969, effectively reworking the Master of Suspense's classic study of obsession and memory as a decidedly Italian thriller in the giallo tradition. The result is one of Fulci's best thrillers, and serves as yet further proof, if proof be needed, that there was more to him than zombies and occular penetration.
Fulci makes little attempt to conceal his influences: the film, like Vertigo, is set in San Francisco, and the very first shot shows us the infamous Golden Gate Bridge, beneath which Kim Novak flung herself into the Pacific Ocean. Even the opening titles seem to be a clear homage to Hitchcock, as they slide and cut across the screen in a similar manner to those of Psycho, while George's surname, Dumurrier, looks similar enough to Du Maurier (and is even pronounced as such by some of the members of the dubbing cast) to suggest yet another allusion to Hitchcock. Furthermore, as Stephen Thrower points out in his book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, both Vertigo and One on Top of the Other centre around the image of a dead woman, albeit in an inverted manner. In Hitchcock's film, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the memory of a glacial, inaccessible woman who turns out never to have existed in the first place, instead the creation of a more down to earth "actress". In Fulci's film, it is the former that is real while the latter, the reincarnation of the supposedly dead Susan Dumurrier, is the fake. George Dumurrier, like Scottie Ferguson, a man who becomes obsessed with a dead woman that he can never truly understand, only to later to discover that she is not truly dead, and that he is merely a pawn in a much bigger game.
The framework may be Hitchcock, but the execution is pure giallo. Not that this will be immediately apparent, though, to those who understand the word "giallo" only in the post-Argento sense. Released a full six months before The Bird with the Crystal Plumage made the word synonymous with black-gloved serial killers, Fulci's film unsurprisingly takes many of its cues from the domestic melodramas popularised by the likes of Umberto Lenzi in the mid to late 1960s (it is interesting that, while Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace laid the foundations for the giallo as a serial killer film in 1964, it wasn't until Argento came along six years later that it became a trend), focusing less on outlandish set-pieces (the events of the film hinge around a single death, which takes place off-screen) and more on conspiracy and psychological torture.
This is a very cold film, and one tinged with sadness too, despite the colourful settings and Swinging Sixties vibe: all relationships seem to be distant, comprised of ritual and pretence. George's marriage to Susan, it would seem, is merely for show, while even his relationship with his lover, Jane, is mechanical and devoid of any real passion. This is most apparent in an early sequence in which, having told him that their relationship can't go on, Jane boards a train to return home to her family. George then sets off in his car, pursuing and overtaking the train, and meets her at the other end. Later, as they travel together in his car (in a scene removed from the print presented on this DVD; see below), it is made clear that this ritual is carried out on a regular basis: "One day, I’ll take that train, and you won’t be there waiting for me," she tells him, to which he responds "No, we'll work it out." She is almost, but not quite, this film's equivalent of the character of Midge in Vertigo: a woman in love with a man who will never love her in return - the difference being that, unlike Scottie's rather chaste friendship with Midge, George is more than happy to use Jane for sex but not much else. Even his relationship with the seductive Monica, a woman who finally seems to be accessible to him, turns out to be a sham, as she is revealed to be nothing more than a mocking construct created by Susan.
Sex is a game in the world in which this film is set, characterised by strip clubs that manage to be both shamelessly salacious and hopelessly naff at the same time, while George, in what is perhaps a manifestation of Fulci's inherent misogyny, finds himself surrounded by a cavalcade of manipulative and hostile women. Indeed, even 'plain' Jane is not all that she seems, transforming into a calculating seductress in a scene in which she turns a photo-shoot with Monica/Susan into an impromptu interrogation. Looked at from a male perspective, it's essentially a fantasy of submission - perhaps best exemplified by the character of Benjamin Wormser (Riccardo Cucciolla): a love-struck client of Monica, he dotes on a woman who doesn't even really exist. Perhaps, in this world, people can only truly be in love with themselves: as Monica rebukes the jealous Benjamin, who believes that she has found someone else, "Yes, you're right. I've got a lover who loves me more than you do. It's a woman, too. It's me!"
Perhaps the most misanthropic element of the film, however, is not the sex but the general impersonality of life itself. Fulci shows us a world in which everything is done by proxy: we, the audience, aren't sure how Susan "died" until it is actually spelled out for us by Henry (Alberto de Mendoza), because we never actually see the event. Even the conspiracy to have George bumped off does not require that its participants lift so much as a finger against him since, as Henry so eloquently puts it, "the State" will kill him for them. This extends to the film's conclusion, which actually turns out to be its weakest moment, despite being thematically appropriate: George's last-minute rescue from the gas chamber takes place off-screen, with the events instead described to us by a news reporter. Given George's complete lack of agency throughout the whole affair, his slinking into the shadows is rather fitting, but it is unsatisfying nonetheless, as it means that both he and the audience are denied a proper sense of closure.
It is, therefore, appropriate, that the biggest impression is made by Marisa Mell. Given top billing in English language prints but listed after Jean Sorel elsewhere, she pulls off a remarkable feat by playing two completely different characters who are, in fact, one in the same. So complete is her transformation from the cold, strait-laced brunette Susan Dumurrier to the blonde, energetic and highly sexual Monica Weston that it comes as a shock to learn that both are played by the same person, and, as Thrower points out, the effect is so convincing that Susan must be a highly accomplished actress in her own right. Her introduction as Monica, an impressively staged striptease scene in which she gives the impression of showing everything while actually showing nothing (she becomes considerably less coy in a later scene), is perhaps the film's biggest show-stopper, and one that rivals Erika Blanc's striptease in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave for its sheer audacity. A Jungian reading reveals a world full of doppelgangers, none more so than Susan/Monica, who is introduced as a reflection in a window, fleetingly spotted gliding around the house. Effectively, the film is telling us, she's a ghost even before she's dead, and her spirit continues to haunt George long after her apparent demise. Even the title is a double entendre: "one on top of the other" may superficially be seen as a reference to sexual activity (of which there is plenty in this film), but it could just as well refer to the notion of layering one persona over another, as Susan does when she creates the character of Monica.
The suicide of Fulci's wife, during the period in which he made his next film, Beatrice Cenci, seems to have marked a turning point in his career, leading to a growing obsession with death and decay which would continue to occupy him for the remainder of his career. This film, however, shows that, even before her death, Fulci's mind was already turning to this grim subject matter, and, along with A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Don't Torture a Duckling and Seven Notes in Black, forms what might be regarded as a loose quartet of musings on the nature of death, while providing something of an insight of the mind of Fulci in the 1970s. One on Top of the Other stands as the beginning of a high point in the director's career, and a niche which, had he continued to explore rather than being drawn to the more visceral but less satisfying thrills of gory zombie horror flicks, would probably resulted in a better legacy than being known simply as the "godfather of gore".
This release, by Severin Films, is the first time the film has ever been released on DVD. Interestingly, Severin have elected to go with the less well known title of Perversion Story rather than the more familiar One on Top of the Other. Originally, I assumed, not unreasonably, that this was simply done for marketing reasons, to make the package more appealing to a specific crowd. The real reason, however, turns out to be that the cut of the film featured on this disc is in fact not the 103-minute film released in English-speaking territories under the title of One on Top of the Other, but rather the 97-minute edition released in France as Perversion Story. (The packaging, however, incorrectly lists the running time as 103 minutes, which I'm sure will lead many people to believe that what they are buying is somewhat different from what they will actually end up receiving.)
This is a rather complicated situation because, as a co-production between three different countries, Fulci would have had to design the film to be marketed to a number of different markets, and as a result a number of different cuts exist. This French print, as it happens, gains approximately four and a half minutes of material, mainly sexual in nature, not found in English language prints. However, to account for the difference in running time, a further ten minutes of largely narrative-based material have been lost, much of which adds considerably to the complexity of the characters and helps to develop the themes of isolation and pretence. The French cut is, in my opinion, inferior to the English variant, and, while I am more than happy to see the film finally released on DVD, it's hard not to feel disappointed that the version we have been given eschews plot in favour of sex. (Plenty, I'm sure, will be more than content with the extended shots of Marisa Mell and Elsa Martinelli's breasts and buttocks.)
An "integral" version, incorporating all of the footage known to exist, would perhaps not have been ideal, as it would have constituted a version of the film that never actually existed before (then again, there remains some controversy surrounding the running time of the Italian cut, which is likely to be closer than any other version to representing Fulci's true intentions). At the same time, none of the footage unique to the English cut contradicts material in the French cut, or vice versa, and nor does either cut contain alternate takes of the same material, so a "complete" cut could theoretically have been assembled without harming the narrative or requiring any real artistic license to be taken. As such, a full-length version could have been created for those who want such a thing - although of course a whole lot of other factors come into play, namely the funds at Severin's disposal, as well as rights issues. A couple of years back, Anchor Bay had the film listed in the "coming soon" section of their web site under the title of One on Top of the Other, and part of me wishes (without much hope, it has to be said), that they will eventually release this in its English variant, so that at least customers would be able to choose which version of the film they wanted. Still, Severin have not exactly done anything duplicitous with this release, per se, although, unless the title on the cover tips customers off, or they visit the company's web site, they will have no way of knowing that what they are actually buying is not the version with which they are likely to be familiar. (To add further confusion, the print opens with a German production logo, features opening credits in Italian and concludes with "The End" being displayed in English!)
If you are interested in a comprehensive list of the differences between the English and French cuts, I have put together a companion piece for this review, available here.
Controversy regarding the version of the film included on the disc aside, this is a very good release. Presented anamorphically in its original ratio of 1.85:1, Severin Films have given the film a solid transfer that, while not perfect, is a revelation given the poor quality of the VHS dupes that most people have had to content themselves with in the past. The level of detail is very good, barring a few shots which look to have been photographed out of focus, while there is an impressive lack of the sort of intrusive noise reduction techniques that tend to be applied (much to their detriment) to many films of this vintage. There are a few moments of discolouration and water spots, and also the occasional splice mark (often where material featured in the English version is missing), and there are some signs of excessive edge enhancement, but by and large this is a very satisfying presentation.
For the audio, in Severin's own words, "both the original English and Italian tracks have been especially conformed" to the French cut. The results are generally pleasing, although both tracks are constrained by the usual wear and tear associated with films of this vintage and origin, while the quality of the Italian track is noticeably weaker than its English counterpart. (You'll probably want to watch it in English anyway, given that the film is set in San Francisco.) Unfortunately, the process of conforming the English track to a version that was never meant to be viewed in English does create some problems. On two occasions, lines of dialogue no longer make any sense (the first when the sentence "Telephone for you, Dr. Dumurrier" is unceremoniously truncated to simply "Dr. Dumurrier", and the second when a character provides an answer for a question that has not, in this version, been asked), while one brief sequence in the strip-club is rendered silent due to English dialogue never existing in the first place (on the Italian track, the dialogue is present and correct). English subtitles are provided for the Italian track, and in places they differ quite substantially from the English dialogue.
The only extra included on the DVD is the film's American theatrical trailer, presented under the title of One on Top of the Other and not in the best condition: dirty, soft and interlaced, with some rather odd jump cuts and a moment in which the screen goes blank for several seconds.
The real draw for this package, in the absence of a good documentary or commentary, is therefore the original soundtrack, presented here on a separate CD. Riz Ortolani's score is a solid piece of work, one which somehow manages to be both infectiously jaunty and incredibly melancholic at the same time. Given that the CD on its own costs around $20 from most sources, picking it up along with the film in this release actually works out as cheaper than buying it separately.
Given that more than ten minutes of important material are missing from this release, it's difficult to call Severin's DVD of Perversion Story definitive. It is, however, a legitimate cut of the film, and as such it still gets my recommendation, albeit with the warning that, if you are already familiar with the film in its more widely available English form, you are likely to find some of the instances of missing footage rather distracting. Until a more complete edition comes along, though, Severin's package is probably the best way to view this long-lost giallo gem.