In 1977 horror maestro Lucio Fulci returned to the giallo format, his last being Don’t Torture a Duckling in 1972, to make The Psychic (or Seven Notes in Black, to give it its original and much more giallo-like title), which has now been extensively restored in 2k by Shameless Films with a lush and excessive vibrancy. Like many gialli, it follows the psychological disturbances of a young woman, Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill), who is the titular psychic and features the typical side characters; a slightly dodgy psychologist who records their meetings, and a husband and useless police officers who don’t believe her visions and pleads.
The film opens in 1959 as a young Virginia, in school in Italy, witnesses her mother take her own life by jumping off a cliff in England. This is, surprisingly for Fulci, the only overtly gory scene in the film. The vivid close ups of her mothers bloodied and battered face as she hits the rocks are interposed between young Virginia’s distraught, teary face emphasising the brutality but also highlighting a theme Fulci comes back to a lot in his films,: childhood trauma and its impacts. The framing of this scene directs our focus to the psychology of Virginia: her memories and her visions. As our memories are inherently cinematic, moving images recalled in our imagination slightly jumbled and slightly enhanced, Fulci recreates this sensation producing a hazy and disjointed feeling to these visions making it unclear whether they are memories, signs, or visions of future events.
Back in the present, she is newly married to wealthy businessman Francesco (Gianni Garko) and on the way back from dropping him off at the airport she has another set of visions while driving through two tunnels. The tunnels become a trip into the abyss, briefly, for her as mosaic images of a murder appear: a broken mirror, a yellow cigarette on a blue ashtray, a red light, the fragmented images giving the effect of a jumbled memory. Virginia then heads to the house her husband owns that has sat vacant for years and during another set of mesmeric visions she is compelled to smash through a wall, leading her to the skeletal corpse of a young woman. She is convinced her visions contain the answer to who did it and she has to find out soon because the police suspect her husband.
What follows is narratively a fairly formulaic search for the murderer that is heightened by Fulci’s strong sense of direction that feels particularly assured here. The use and placing of colours, particularly the recurring red that merges the visions of murder and the real world of danger, is giallo at its best. The frantic score that materialises from nowhere and disappears again just as quickly heightens its narrative and the leitmotif, the titular “seven black notes” that are crucial to the plot, were later utilised by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill vol. 1. The film feels quite bare when it comes to diegetic sound, even dialogue, increasing the importance of the unforgettable score.
Although The Psychic is more linear and less convoluted than Fulci’s previous work, like many of his films it unfolds like a hypnotic dream. It feels oneiric without any actual trips through her dreams; we are entirely hypnotised and seduced by her visions. This is partly due to Jennifer O’Neill’s bewitching performance as a woman trying to prove her psychic ability in a sea of non-believers while also not conceding to the ceaseless tides of fate. There’s the stiffness of a woman paralysed by her visions, yet also an evident softness in her desperation. Her eyes, that we’re always drawn to either by the framing or the camera movements, lead us through the story and the voyeuristic preoccupation of giallo is redefined here. The constant quick zooms to her eyes are followed by images of her visions and therefore what she sees is the focus. It emphasises the power of looking, and our position as spectators, but as many gialli afford the killer with the gaze, that makes The Psychic feel closer to a psychological horror, in the vein of Hitchcock, with a focus on the mental state of the heroine and not the activities of the killer. This sets it apart from the more ‘slasher-esque’ giallo films, and it is also remarkably less focussed on the psycho-sexual.
Although Fulci is known for both his early embrace of salacious gore and sexuality which paved the way for the genres more outrageous excursions and his non-giallo films which earned him the moniker ‘The Godfather of Gore’, The Psychic is an interesting move away from those concerns while still featuring Fulci’s distinctive directorial flare. It’s a Hitchcockian murder mystery painted with vermillion red and a preoccupation with the female psyche, and may be surprising for fans of Fulci’s later work.
The Psychic is on Blu-ray and VOD now from Shameless Films
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.