The roots of Italian horror go back to 1929 when the Mondadori publishing house introduced a series of books in yellow covers. These novels were created to promote detective stories that were influenced by British and American mystery fiction. The paperbacks were synonymous with their distinctive color and became known as giallo novels--giallo meaning 'yellow' in Italian.
From the 1940's to the early 1950's, Italian cinema was deeply rooted in a neorealist style, reflecting life post-World War II. At the dawn of giallo cinema in the 1960's, the fantastical elements associated with American film were foreign to Italian audiences. But soon the giallo genre developed a distinct Italian style like its literary counterpart. The films were associated with intense color, fashionable style and theatrical visual elements. Italian cinema became more experimental in the 60's leading into the 70's. Though the mystery component was maintained, eventually giallo focused more on Gothic horror and psychological thrills, steeped in healthy doses of eroticism and graphic violence. Themes like exoticism, alienation and identity emerged and became the earmark of the genre, made famous by favorites like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava.
Fulci is known as the 'godfather of gore' but shortly before he earned his title with epics like Zombie and The Beyond, he directed a classic giallo thriller, Sette note in nero (Seven Notes in Black)--known in the U.S. as The Psychic. You may recognize the film's haunting score, composed by Franco Bixio, Fabio Frizzi and Vince Tempra--the melody was used in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Fulci was known for being technically skilled and worked with expert cinematographer, Sergio Salvati (Puppet Master, Ghoulies II), for many of his films including Seven Notes. Fulci's cast included many familiar faces from giallo, including Jennifer O'Neill (Scanners) in the lead role of Virginia Ducci.
The film starts with a young Virginia having a horrifying vision of her mother falling from a cliff, which sadly turns out to be true. Surprisingly, this death scene (reminiscent of the ending in Don't Torture a Duckling) is the goriest the film ever gets, but don't let that deter you from watching it. The film's clever touches and suspenseful hide-and-seek make it worth your time.
Twenty years later, Virginia is happily married to her successful husband, Francesco (Gianni Garko) but she can't escape her psychic gift, which often feels more like a curse. While driving to their villa, Virginia has an intense vision while entering a dark tunnel. These disturbing fragments become the clues she will need to solve the mystery in a deadly chain of events.
The film slow boils as Fulci methodically leads us to the end where things start to unravel. The last moments of the film alone are worth the wait and reigns as probably one of my favorite endings. Like most of his earlier work, Seven Notes is gorgeously lit and carefully composed--using a frame within a frame technique that echoes throughout the film. Fulci uncovers beauty and terror in singular moments, unlike his later films, which opt for a more excessive approach (not always a bad thing). A crack along a wall, shadows across a staircase and the chime of a wristwatch all foreshadow something far more sinister. Fulci orchestrates pictorial suspense with a lingering attention to something that at first appears mundane but is revealed to be unparalleled in its symbolism.
Heavy on atmosphere and potent in its simplicity, Seven Notes in Black offers an excellent diversion from Fulci's gore happy films and shines a light on a lesser known world where style and suspense trump sleaze and slaughter.