Gore is a lot like porn. Instead of stimulated the libido or loins, a good old-fashioned bloodletting gratifies the baser, more brutal instincts of man's existence. If all of life is in service of sex and violence, then grue is the unholy stew from which the hooligan and homicidal dine. Fans of free flowing organs enjoy watching a wound gape, a neck bisect and a head fall flatly on the floor, the brains inside sloshing around with a sickening fluidity. They delight in the deathblow and celebrate serial slaughter as the murderous money shot it is. And just like those connoisseurs of quality quackenbush, they will revisit favored filmmakers over and over. They will even forgive the occasional misfire from those who know how to deliver the dismemberment with gratuitous gusto.
Lucio Fulci was - and remains - such a skin flailing flick maker extraordinaire. Over the course of an incredibly varied career, the director dabbled in comedy, helmed a few historical epics, created a couple of action adventures and, of course, violated the terror genre with his own sickening stain. Unlike his Mediterranean fraternity, Fulci really enjoyed giving his audiences reasons to be nauseous along with his narrative. His movies contain some of the most revolting, depraved displays of physical carnage captured onscreen - and fans wouldn't have it any other way. Touch of Death represents a late in life quasi-renaissance for the motion picture pioneer. While it doesn't represent the best of what he could accomplish, this is still one malevolent bit of hardcore horror - at least, for a while.
Lester Pearson is a man with problems. Probably the unluckiest man in the history of the world, he gambles with abandon. Sadly, he NEVER wins. This has lead Lester to certain "financial" issues with the local mobsters, who don't take kindly to individuals unable to pay their Derby Day debts. Desperate, Lester has taken to draining his bank accounts to keep from having his legs broken...or worse. One day, he stumbles across a brilliant plan. He will seek out lonely ladies in the personal columns, determine their wealth, and then murder them. As fate would have it, this taps directly into Lester's other major malady. He's nuttier than almond bark. Not content to merely kill his conquests, our loathsome lothario enjoys carving them up with chainsaws, bludgeoning the eyes out of their sockets, and roasting their heads in convection ovens.
Adding to Lester's lament is the fact that, as he's slaying his supposed sugar mommas, a copycat killer is roaming the streets, repeating his crimes. The police are hot on his trail, and our ill-fated fiend feels the heat. In order to calm his nerves, he has long conversations with his stereo system...and wouldn't you know it, the tape player always talks back! It will take more than an all points bulletin, a full contingency of law enforcement, and a few "lucky" breaks here and there to capture this creep. Lester is getting good at his newfound cruel cash machinery, and he intends to use his Touch of Death to finally find the fortune he seeks.
Lucio Fulci's Touch of Death is a movie that shoots its wad right from the get go. Instead of presenting us with plentiful backstory, or standard scare film bait and switch, the master of Italian ick just revs up the chainsaw and makes with the vivisection. In one of the nastiest, goriest scenes in the auteur's canon, Fulci's pathetic protagonist Lester Pearson, celebrates a particularly choice morsel of human thigh steak with the typical Leatherface salute. As the unfortunate female on the slab in our psycho's home gets various parts of her body severed from the others, the camera gets in close to see all the skin ripping, sinew tearing detail. One of the great things about Fulci, especially for us gorehounds, is his unflinching lens. Whether it's an industrial drill making its way through a man's head, or a sharp shard of wood working its tip into the juiciest part of an unsuspecting eye, this Mediterranean madman really knew how to lay on the grue.
As a matter of fact, some feel that, as a filmmaker, Fulci spends too much time with the putrescence and not enough time with the plots. Sadly, such is the case with Touch of Death. Though the Italian name is equally elusive (Quando Alice ruppe lo specchio - or When Alice Broke the Mirror), this is a movie that can't quite make up its mind as to what it wants to be. We start out with a standard shocker. About 10 minutes in, the decidedly dark humor kicks in. For a while, Fulci is fashioning one of the sickest comedies ever to come out of the horror genre. There are conversations with boom boxes and an eerie series of copycat murders making our nutjobs life even more slapstick and surreal. Indeed, for the first hour, Touch of Death is super. The storyline hums along fairly well, with only occasional lapses into illogic land.
But the minute our killer goes crawling around an abandoned cottage looking for the individual mimicking his crimes, Touch of Death derails. It's hard to say what happens, really. Nothing much of consequence occurs at the vacant hovel, and when Lester leaves to continue his escapades, the slightest hint of something supernatural is still in the air. But Fulci never capitalizes on this concept. Instead, we get more of the same - except now sans the blood. Indeed, one of the film's biggest failings is that, after the first two murders - and some creative slaughter of an ancillary character with a car - we've seen all the slasher stuff that the movie has to offer. Fulci will do away with a couple more people as the plot moves along, but their deaths are nothing in comparison to the carnage we see at the beginning. If anything, Touch of Death is way too top heavy. After the shocking, sluice-filled first act, the brutality peters out until all we are left with is exposition and waiting.
Fulci may feel that all this builds suspense, and he's partially right. We are consistently at the edge of our seat waiting for the next volley of violence. Sadly, it never comes. Indeed, one could argue that when Touch of Death goes from visceral to psychological, the fun falls apart. All the black humor that supported the splatter fades off into the ephemera and all the bodily fluids dry up and disappear. This is understandable. By introducing the mental madness in the beginning, Fulci has to find a way to readdress it and fill it out. But as he did in the past, the filmmaker always found a way to mix the exposition into the craven excess. Characters discovering the secrets to old houses or abandoned graveyards had legions of the undead, or throngs of demented demons to deal with. Here, we get lots of conversations, discussions about monetary issues, and a last act denouncement that never fully fleshes out our main character's compulsion.
Had he been smart, Fulci should have followed his Zombi formula, which can be summed up as blood, guts and more of both. The opening death by power tool is terrific, and if we had enjoyed similar slaughter throughout Touch of Death, we'd have an instant classic. But the filmmaker pulls back on the reigns, doing something he is not famous for - trying to make sense of the storyline. He didn't do it in The Beyond, or City of the Living Dead, so why try now? We don't want a mental mapping of the hero's psychosis - we want to see buckets of bile. True, the sequences where Lester discusses his problem with the electronics is wonderfully dopey, but we'd gladly trade the talks for another Black and Decker autopsy.
At least the acting is excellent. In the leading role, Brett Halsey is hilarious. He is supposed to be a crazed cannibalistic serial killer, feeding his hapless gambling habit by murdering wealthy widows. But he's more like the punchline to a joke about individuals who are desperate and dateless. Halsey, who some MSTies may recognize as the iconic Bix Dugan in The Girl from Lover's Lane, does befuddled banefulness very well. We know he's evil, but his klutzy cluelessness makes him sort of endearing - especially when he's saddled with the kind of seamy slags he must woo here. One of Touch of Death's most delirious components is the level of pug-fugly madam Lester must interact with in order to get his crime on. We get gals with furry moles on their faces...and breasts, ladies with lip occlusions, and the hairiest honey this side of the Soviet bloc. Their readily repugnant nature makes them easy targets for Lester's lunacy, and we actually find ourselves rooting for their removal. Fulci should have really explored and tapped into this tendency. Had he followed his mutt ugly Miss muse to its end, Touch of Death would have been magnificent.
As it stands though, this is still a recommendable movie. It doesn't represents the legendary director's best work, but it more than makes up for some of the failures he forced on the public toward the end of his career. Gorehounds will be glad to suffer the substandard third act just to get their hands on the heaping helpings of blood-based horror on tap here. After all, no one does death, dismemberment and disease better than the fetid Fulci. His eye for evil was always exceptional and his notion of how to exploit overkill for its maximum effect is unparalleled, even today. On the off chance that the F/X failed him, Fulci could still salvage the slaughter. He just had a knack for the nasty. If you're looking for a comedy that is truly black, or a slice and dice with lots of gooey goodness, Touch of Death will delight and disgust. It's not perfect, but it sure is potent.
Home Theater aficionados should be prepared for a letdown when placing the DVD version of Touch of Death into their supped-up system. Media Blasters presents the film in a dirty, washed out 1.33:1 full frame transfer that stays true to the movie's shot for Italian television tenets. Colors are faded, there is lots of grit and grime in places, and the contrasts are weak. The image can occasionally look very good, usually during the outdoor scenes. At other times, the visual violations become unbearable. Though shot on film, the mastering gives the look of a poorly processed video reconfiguration. Still, this is a passable presentation that gives us the patented Fulci foulness in as much clarity as possible.
There are two different ways to listen to Touch of Death. One is via an English dub that has its Dolby Digital Mono misgivings. The translation is terribly formal, with the Western voices coming across as either emotionless or bug-butt insane. Better is the equally one channel Italian. While it's odd to see Halsey speaking with a thick Roman accent, their is at least some passion and individuality in this presentation. The subtitles are clear and easy to read, making the aural offering here one of the better parts of the DVD.
Media Blasters have outdone themselves in providing a plethora of bonus material for Touch of Death. First up is a full-length audio commentary/interview with Lucio Fulci. This relative rarity - the director died of a diabetes-related illness in 1996 - will make this DVD a favorite for fans of the director. This is not an alternative narrative for the film, however. What we have here is an extensive, very entertaining Q&A that walks through the first half of Fulci's incredibly long career (stopping around 1971's A Lizard in Woman's Skin). Vulgar, crude and incredibly funny, the filmmaker drops names, discusses his sexual conquests and ridicules just about every other individual in Italian cinema. While it would have been nice to hear him discuss Touch of Death, this is still a delightful diversion.
Even better is the conversation with Fulci historian Paolo Albeiro. He puts Touch of Death in context with other films by the writer/director, and argues that it was the restrictions of the mediums he was forced to work in, not Fulci's failing artistic vision, that resulted in so many mediocre movies later on in his career. Adding to the discussion is the final substantive feature. Zora Kerova, who played the final "lover" of Lester Pearson is on hand for a brief look back at her involvement with the film. She seems far more interested in commenting on her work in Cannibal Ferox than dragging up Touch of Death, but once she gets on the subject, she's very informative. Her appearance as part of the extras is all too brief, however.
The final bit of ballyhoo for this DVD release includes a series of trailers, a promo for Touch of Death, and a stills gallery. Overall, Media Blasters does a fine job in complimenting what is, in reality, an off-title for an otherwise infamous filmmaker.
In the pantheon of the arterial spray, Touch of Death is a lesser entity. Certainly the 'saw sequence is one of the best ever captured on celluloid, and as a result, is a must-see cinema for those gorehounds in the crowd. And the level of humor is such that the laughs are actually more plentiful than the select slaughter set pieces. Still, anyone enamored with this main man of macabre and surrealistic statements like The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery will be more than a little letdown by this otherwise routine rib-gouger. A lot of what made Fulci famous is included here. A lot of what made him a second tier shocker is here as well. Just like the sex film that fails to deliver the much touted "arousal" factors, blood boosters may not come away 100% sated. But with the pickings so slim in the current realm of the repugnant, it's nice to get a throwback bit of serial slice and dice to quell the need for vile violence. Touch of Death is still worth a look, but it's not the classic claret we've come to expect from Fulci. His name is a trademark for grue-graced horror. Touch of Death is only a minor part of this filmmaker's brand of barf.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here