We start at the beginning, with 1969’s One on Top of the Other, otherwise known as Perversion Story (a title that this author finds, especially when looking at the filmmaker that Fulci would become, exaggerated, to say the least). This breezy San Francisco-set film about an adulterous Doctor (played by Jean Sorel)obsessing over a “striptease artist” that appears to be dead ringer for his cold, distant, recently deceased wife is typical of a lot of sixties gialli. At the risk of oversimplification, the gialli of the 1960s could be roughly divided into two groupings: the first being the those that carry over heavy elements of the very popular gothic horror subgenre, and the second being the ‘Swinging Sixties’ gialli, which this film belongs to.
At first, it would be easy to dismiss this film as a sleazy and sexy Vertigo rip-off, as the plot does bare some superficial similarities to the Hitchcock classic, but as many know, when the Italians decide to rip off a popular American fad, it always comes out as something that is very much its own thing (take Fulci’s own Dawn of the Dead rip-off, Zombie, for example).
When viewing One on Top of the Other, key to its appreciation is looking at it in the context of Lucio Fulci’s filmography at that time. Fulci had been directing for ten years when he made this film, and all but one of those films were comedies in every variation (incidentally, the one non-comedic effort he made in this time was the spaghetti western Massacre Time, in 1966). By 1969, Fulci had not yet discovered his penchant for gore. And still, One on Top of the Other remains key in appreciating just how good a craftsman Fulci was. With this rather subdued effort, it becomes plainly obvious just how good a visual and narrative storyteller Fulci could be. The cinematography and set design are beautiful, and Fulci is working from one of the best scripts of his career.
The first act of the film, like all gialli set in foreign countries, makes full use of its ‘exotic’ location (in this case San Francisco), opening with a shot of the Golden Gate bridge. Much of the first act of the film consists of long, wide aerial shots of Jean Sorel’s Dr. George Dumurrier travelling from place to place, exploiting San Francisco almost to the point of the film being a travelogue.
Even the simple, fundamental things are done well. This aforementioned drive, scored to Riz Ortolani’s loose and freewheeling jazz soundtrack, takes George from the liberated moods of the relatively modern architecture of his clinic, to the emotionally tense and oppressive atmosphere of the spaces inside the more traditional and borderline gothic architecture of his home, where he lives an unhappy marriage with his wife, Susan. Incidentally, we later see that the home of Monica, the stripper/exact double of the late Susan is the polar opposite of the latter’s home. It is youthful, modernist, hip, and liberated.
Breaking free from the settings of this film, Fulci demonstrates his ability as a master craftsman with well thought-out, occasionally showy cinematography and camera angles. Early in the film, after arriving home to an asthma attack from his soon-to-be-dead wife, a nurse remarks to George: “you love her very much.” The camera pans from a close-up of George to his reflection, to which he says with hesitation: “of course.” A simple device? Yes. Common for many gialli when establishing the duplicitous nature of one’s character? Sure. But without any of Fulci’s signature gore dominating the film, the basic craft of filmmaking can be appreciated down to the minutiae.
The sex scenes of One on Top of the Other are among the film’s most inventive moments. Fulci shoots them through the surfaces on which the characters make love. The film’s first sex scene, for example, is on a bed with red sheets, and Fulci places his camera beneath the lovers, the thin sheet in between, and the result is the characters indulging their passions on top of the camera shot through what looks like red gauze.
As far as the both the films of Lucio Fulci and the giallo cycle go, it can be said that every sex scene in the film is not gratuitous. They are long, yes, but they all very much help to advance the plot, whether through the act itself, or through dialogue and character motivations during the scenes. The sex scenes in One on Top of the Other, with the characters’ interplay, dialogue, and dramatic needs, all have narrative structure. They all have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, ending when they have fulfilled their narrative and dramatic purpose. Indeed, for a film widely marketed as an erotic giallo under the titleof Perversion Story, the film contains only two full length sex scenes, further demonstrating Fulci’s restraint when making this film.
In the second act of the film comes a scene of an autopsy which, with the exception of the camera almost relishing the heavily decomposed body prior to the autopsy itself, is not graphic in the slightest. The autopsy is shot and edited with a creative use of montage and split-screen techniques, almost comparable to Tinto Brass’ use of split-screen in his 1967 giallo, Deadly Sweet. Unlike the earlier Tinto Brass giallo effort, however, Fulci uses this split-screen montage to build suspense. Just as the montage condenses and accelerates the narrative’s depiction of time passing, the audience is constantly reminded just how long this autopsy process is taking, with the split-screen imagery constantly featuring inserts of visual signifiers of time passing – namely that of fluids coming to a boil, fluids dripping onto petri dishes, or fluids travelling through tubes from one place to another.
A simple but highly effective narrative device employed and executed by an efficient master craftsman. The other narrative ‘trick’ that stands out, Fulci reserved for the end of the film. Many elements are set up in the lead-up to this. Dr. George Dumurrier is led inside the gas chamber at San Quentin, looking on longingly to those bearing witness to his execution, waiting desperately for some last-second reprieve or twist of fate that proves his innocence. We cut to his brother, Henry, who along with George’s wife orchestrated the convoluted turn of events in the film, flying to Paris, to a specific café to meet Susan/Monica(George’s wife/the stripper lookalike). We cut back to the gas chamber, being sealed up, the guard with his hand on the lever and waiting for the final go-ahead.
And then we come to the film’s finale. Fulci is simultaneously cheeky and suspenseful here, as we have a television journalist delivering a news report from the gas chamber at San Quentin, where we last saw George about to be executed. Fulci strings us along for as long as he can, allowing us to believe that George was actually executed. And the modern viewer would be inclined to go along with it, not questioning for moment whether George was saved. After all, the modern viewer would most likely be coming to this film having seen Fulci’s darker, more nihilistic, and despairing films first. And then Fulci cuts back to the Parisian café scene. Susan arrives to meet Henry. It seems like they have got away, scot-free. “Monica…”, a familiar voice utters, offscreen. It is an obsessive regular client that Susan had during her time posing as Monica. He shoots both Susan and Henry dead. Fulci cuts back to the journalist, and he continues his report, having explained the Paris shooting. How it happened eight hours before George’s scheduled execution. How the information only made its way to the Governor at the last minute…thus allowing him to halt the execution, quite literally, at the last second.
One on Top of the Other is no doubt one of Lucio Fulci’s most overlooked films, and its lack of violence and gratuitous nudity – the restraint under which Fulci made the film – is among its greatest assets and is key in understanding how good a filmmaker Fulci truly is on both a technical and storytelling level. The film is very well-written, with numerous narrative flourishes and a plot that holds up unbelievably well under scrutiny compared to some of the better-known gialli, and it is very well-shot, with its heavy use of location exterior photography helping to really ground the story.