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Manhattan Baby

Blue Underground // Unrated // October 25, 2016 // Region 0
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 23, 2016 | E-mail the Author
"You can take my life with stuffed birds, but you shall not have my soul, Habnumenor! Birds of darkness, consume me!"

Look, Manhattan Baby is terrible. Even the appreciation in this lavish special edition's liner notes has an air of "well, it's not a complete failure" about it, not making a case for how Manhattan Baby is undeservedly reviled so much as explaining how it wound up in such a dismal state in the first place. This wasn't a passion project of Lucio Fulci's; it was a business obligation. Manhattan Baby was intended to showcase an array of dazzling visual effects, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% of its budget was gutted from it at the eleventh hour, forcing some rushed and awfully clumsy retooling. Its storytelling is confused, woefully uninvolving, and glacially paced. It's ostensibly a horror film but is entirely devoid of anything resembling tension or suspense, to the point that it doesn't even seem as if it's trying to unnerve much of anyone. Wait, snakes are scary, right? Okay, here's another snake. Whatever. Other than poorly echoing the likes of The Exorcist, I genuinely have no idea what it's setting out to accomplish. I'm not exactly alone in bitching and moaning like this; Fulci, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, and seemingly everyone else involved with Manhattan Baby have looked back on it as a disaster.

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With as thinly plotted as Manhattan Baby is, we can pretty much breeze through the whole synopsis part of the deal. Thrill to a working vacation in Egypt! Papa Hacker (Christopher Connelly) is in the process of unearthing a forbidden tomb, as archaeologists are wont to do. Mama Hacker (Martha Taylor) is snapping photos of pyramids and the like for some nameless magazine, with her sleepy-eyed ten year old Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) in tow. Mom scores some really spectacular pictures. Susie's gifted an amulet by a creepy, grabby, old woman. Dad's assistant gets skewered by one of the tomb's many traps before he himself is blinded by a couple of mystical laser beams. As raw a deal as that may sound for her pop, Susie actually gets the worst of it. Some sinister entity is riding shotgun with her on the way back home to Manhattan. Courtesy of her new pal, Susie and her kid brother Tommy (thrice-damned Fulci alum Giovanni Frezza) can now somehow come and go between different planes of existence. As for their terrorized au pair Jamie Lee (Cinzia De Ponti), it's not really "come and go" so much as "go". Um, a bunch of other weird shit happens, pretty much everyone dies, and there's kind of a happy ending except for the whole stuffed birds pecking a man dead thing and one of those circular "the end...?"-style twists. Manhattan Baby!

As dreadful as so much of Manhattan Baby is, I still have kind of a soft spot for it. Fabio Frizzi's score is marvelous; so memorable, in fact, that it's diagetically whistled at one point. Though Manhattan Baby goes overboard on closeups of the eyes, even by Fulcian standards, he and cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori (Spasmo) have clearly taken pains to ensure that this is a beautifully composed film. The location photography in Egypt is particularly stunning. So much of what transpires is entrancingly strange: say, an extradimensional game of hide and seek, a bedroom floor suddenly blanketed ankle-deep in desert sand, and a scorched Polaroid teleporting to an entirely different part of the island. Sometimes it can be unintentionally hilarious, such as the howlingly funny sight of a security guard tumbling down as an elevator floor vanishes or a spring-loaded cobra blasted out of a secret chamber in the Egyptian tomb, but at least it breaks up the tedium. Why the briefly blinded George repeatedly slaps sunglasses over his bandaged eyes, I have no idea, but it never fails to get a laugh.

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The chief problem is, well...everything, I guess. At no point do the Hackers ever threaten to come across as people, devoid of any real personality or anything to make me the least bit engaged in their proto-Poltergeist-esque waking nightmare. There's no urgency to much of anything going on. Neither Taylor nor Connelly seem to give much of a shit, Boccoli looks as if she's barely awake the entire flick, and although Frezza isn't as insufferably nails-on-chalkboard as he was in The House by the Cemetery, he's still quite possibly the single worst thing about Manhattan Baby. Not helping matters is one of the most incompetent English dubs I've ever suffered through. I'd call the storytelling incoherent, but that'd assume that there's a story to be had in the first place. What's left is a shrug-worthy mix of dead air and shabbily crafted knockoffs from The Exorcist, complete with an excavation in the Middle East, an amulet that wreaks havoc in a young girl after being brought to these shores, a possession that medical science can't explain, something that I guess is close enough to an exorcism, and a sacrifice that ultimately frees the child of her otherworldly burden. The body count is fairly sizeable, but essentially no blood is spilled until the film's gruesome final moments, and even that's deflated by laughably ridiculous puppetry. As for its oddball title, just accept that it's a nod to Rosemary's Baby -- ditto for a character not-so-subtly named Adrian Mercato -- and try not to think about it too much.

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The challenge here is that Blue Underground has assembled such an extraordinary special edition release, and yet it's for a generally lousy film that I can't possibly recommend as a purchase sight-unseen. The uninitiated would do well to stream or Rent It first. (You can give Manhattan Baby a look with a free trial of Full Moon on Amazon.) For Fulci completists who know and love -- or know and grudgingly tolerate -- Manhattan Baby, this is the essential special edition you've been aching for, and it readily comes Highly Recommended. I can't really break out my ratings in the sidebar like that, so let's meet somewhere in the middle instead.

Just look at it.

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As lovely as so many of Fulci's films have been presented on Blu-ray -- with Mondo Macabro's release of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Arrow Video's The Black Cat among the most recent standouts -- Manhattan Baby may be the director's best looking high-definition release yet. Newly transferred in 2K from the original camera negative, I'm awestruck by how sharp and overflowing with detail the image is. Its colors are beautifully saturated. Though hair and assorted crud sometimes get caught in the gate, the presentation itself is entirely devoid of any speckling or wear. It sometimes seems as if a bit more is exposed at the top of the frame than intended, but that faint raggedness is never to the point of distraction. This Blu-ray release is masterfully authored and looks wonderfully filmic for the entirety of its 89 minute runtime. Manhattan Baby is in the running as Blue Underground's best looking Blu-ray release to date, it's far and away the most gorgeous of the Italian films they've brought to the format, and I haven't seen a more beautiful presentation of Fulci's work on these shores. It is in every way exceptional.

Manhattan Baby arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. I would've expected a film from 1982 to be 2.35:1, but what's a few scanlines between friends? Also included is an anamorphic widescreen DVD.

Blue Underground's release of Manhattan Baby is presented exclusively in English, and that extends to the text shown on-screen, such as the "daddy help me" note neatly scrawled on a bedroom mirror. Not that Eurohorror completists need an explanation, but as with pretty much every other Italian production of the era, Manhattan Baby was shot wild, using whatever audio was recorded on-set strictly as a guide track. As such, there is no 'original' language, and English is as valid an option as any. An Italian soundtrack would've been nice, but I imagine that the edits are different enough that one couldn't just be dropped in.

There are two 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on offer here: one in its original mono and the other remixed to 5.1. The result isn't spectacular, although I'd imagine that Blue Underground did what they could with the elements available. It's certainly not their fault that the English dubbing is so disastrous. Some of the folks contributing their voices don't appear to have a grasp of English at all -- particularly whatever mushmouth is standing in for Tommy -- and so little effort is made to enunciate that I repeatedly found myself relying on subtitles to make heads or tails of it. When we first hear the name 'Habnumenor' uttered, it sounds like 'Habadoopadoh' instead. The subtitles say "jewel", but it sure sounds like the line is "make sure that your daughter doesn't have the glub", complete with an unmistakeable hard-"g". I thought that wisecracker was saying "now, the big bad word", but the subtitles tell me that it's "world". In 5.1, the dialogue strikes me as kind of thin and trebly, spreading out more though accentuating the sibilance in two-channel mono. Bass response can be respectable, punctuating some of the cues in Fabio Frizzi's score as well as the crashes of thunder and the gutteral growl of that sinkhole in Cairo. Atmospherics and the score make up most of the action in the rear channels as well. Sometimes I was impressed by how Frizzi's music roared; othertimes I felt as if it was too meek in the mix. This is a perfectly listenable remix, though, free of any intrusive background noise or overt flaws in the audio.

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Also included are subtitles in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

  • Audio CD: The standout of this collection's extras is its soundtrack CD. The first eleven tracks are cues directly from the film and sound marvelous, and the twelfth is composer Fabio Frizzi's treat to his many fans. The CD runs a little over a half hour in length.

  • Manhattan Baby Suite (9 min.; HD): Fabio Frizzi and a backing band perform live renditions of several of Manhattan Baby's more memorable cues, complete with acoustic and electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, drums, an egg shaker, and ethereal female vocals.

  • Fulci and I (56 min.; HD): Live performances -- in a rehearsal space and on-stage -- are also a fixture of this nearly hour long retrospective with Fabio Frizzi. I appreciate how personal and intimate a conversation this is, beginning with how asthma and an unseasonably cold winter directed a young Frizzi away from swimming and instead towards music. "Fulci and I" charts the early years of his career as a composer, writing for television straight out of high school. Work in film came quickly, including many scores for a director Frizzi would soon regard as a great friend: the versatile, demanding, and brutally direct Lucio Fulci. Frizzi explores his work for Fulci in great detail, including his contributions to Four of the Apocalypse, The Psychic, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, Cat in the Brain, and, of course, Manhattan Baby.

    There are so many wonderful details to be found here: cutting the tape he'd recorded of a seven note theme for The Psychic on his brother's piano so he could loop it, introducing himself to horror scores in Bruno Nicolai's personal studio for Zombie, Fulci's violent outburst upon hearing the flute-centric theme that Frizzi had hoped would open City of the Living Dead, the staggering number of tracks in The Beyond's ornate score, and how he thought the theme for his Fulci reunion in Cat in the Brain could never be adapted for live performance...and yet it was! Frizzi looks back fondly on Manhattan Baby, and that very much goes for film itself as well, noting his longstanding fascination with Egyptian themes, figuring out how to work without some of his familiar collaborators, and what a seismic impact keyboardist Gianni Mazza had on its sound. It's an engagingly detailed discussion, and I particularly love how Frizzi is quick to credit the many different musicians and engineers with whom he'd worked. Also worth noting is that friend and former bandmate Franco Bixio is also interviewed.
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  • Stephen Thrower on Manhattan Baby (13 min.; HD): The author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci speaks at length about the production of and reception to Manhattan Baby, including how it is perhaps a reaction to the then-yet-to-be-released The New York Ripper, Fulci still fiddling with the film's extensive optical effects a week or two prior to its premiere in Italy, its many influences, an exchange about mummies versus zombies that perhaps suggests Fulci's exhaustion with the genre, and how mightily the film struggled to find an audience in English-speaking markets. Thrower also speaks a great deal about Frizzi's score, including contributions by members of Goblin.

  • For the Birds (9 min.; HD): Actor Cosimo Cinieri speaks primarily about Lucio Fulci rather than his time on Manhattan Baby in particular, including the director's frustrations in being unable to make the sort of movies he wanted to create, his boundless imagination, and what a pleasant atmosphere he always tried to establish on the set. Cinieri also touches on how Fulci came to cast him, the challenges of portraying such a strange character, the claustrophobic headaches of getting a facial cast, and everything you wanted to know about the stuffed bird carnage but were afraid to ask.

  • 25 Years with Fulci (11 min.; HD): As the title suggests, special makeup effects artist Maurizio Trani delves into his long working relationship with Lucio Fulci throughout so many of his most enduring films. Trani speaks about Fulci's transition from an eclectic slate to essentially nothing but horror, the director's penchant for nicknames, and many collaborations with the fearless makeup effects artist Giannetto De Rossi. It's a warm remembrance, also touching on how frail Fulci was at the end and how Trani served as his driver for a series of university lectures...and, being an interview on a Fulci Blu-ray release and everything, there's also a great deal of discussion about eye-gouging too!

  • Beyond the Living Dead (8 min.; SD): Carried over from the old Anchor Bay DVD is this conversation with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti. Here, he speaks about breaking away from traditional genre films for what was intended to be "high tech horror", how Fabrizio De Angelis was the worst producer he ever worked with but the one who offered him the most freedom as a writer, Fulci's rampant misogyny, and how there wasn't time to properly rethink the film after its budget had been eviscerated.

  • Theatrical Trailer (3 min.; HD): Though the film played in many different countries under a seemingly endless barrage of titles, this is indeed an English language trailer with the on-screen title of Manhattan Baby.

  • Poster and Still Gallery: There are some fifty images in this high resolution gallery, including production stills and artwork from all across the globe: poster art, VHS boxes, DVDs, and even soundtrack scans.

The cover art is reversible, and it comes as a completely unexpected surprise to see the Eye of the Evil Dead artwork on the flipside! (That's the one I'm sticking with, for whatever my vote is worth.) Arriving alongside the accompanying DVD and soundtrack CD are a terrific set of liner notes by Troy Howarth, the author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films. It's also very much worth noting that Manhattan Baby is an all-region release.

Now, The Big Bad Word...!
Let's see here:

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This is one of the most exceptional special edition releases of Lucio Fulci's work on Blu-ray to date, boasting a couple of hours' worth of extras, a soundtrack CD, and an indescribably gorgeous presentation. The downside is...well, it's Manhattan Baby, a dreadful misstep in Fulci's filmography that even the director himself dismissed as being terrible. Highly Recommended to Fulci completists, but neophytes would do well to figure out what they're getting into first. Since I'm obligated to come up with one final rating, let's split the difference and say Recommended instead.
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