Touch of Death (1988)
By: Julian on January 19, 2009  | 
DVD
EC Entertainment (The Netherlands), All Regions, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0, French DD 2.0, Italian DD 2.0. English, Dutch Subtitles. 81 minutes.
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Brett Hasley, Ria de Simone, Al Cliver, Zora Kerova, Sacha Darwin
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci
Country: Italy
External Links
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Called Quando Alice Ruppe lo Specchio ("When Alice Breaks the Mirror") in its native Italy, the 1988 film retitled Touch of Death for foreign audiences is on the latter half of Italian exploitation great Lucio Fulci's résumé, coming eight years before his death. It's also one of the brightest, most interesting films of his entire career, showcasing a belated, and almost delicate, honing of his craft as director/screenwriter.

Brett Halsey plays Lester Parson, who we are introduced to as a seemingly meek sort of a guy, settling down to a steak in front of the TV and cutting down slices for a particularly affectionate cat. He's single, middle-aged, sports a thick, black, face-covering beard and some steel-rimmed glasses. Once he's polished off his steak, Parson goes down to his basement, over to a naked woman bound to a table, before dismembering her with a chainsaw and mincing her organs for his and kitty's next TV dinner.

Lester makes a habit of such behaviour, and the incidents are well publicised: similarly-aged and very wealthy widows being brutally murdered by a perp the media have dubbed "The Maniac" (as inventive a name as, say, "the killer" – even Jack the Ripper got a more formidable murderer handle), and don't have the slightest on.

Perusing the personals in the local rag, Lester beelines towards Margie, a widower with a helluva inheritance to squander. Lester plies her with booze and she's a very messy drunk, all over her would-be killer as he has her on his couch, romancing her with some remedial smooth-talk. He gets out two champagne flutes, poisons one of them, and hands the tainted one to Margie and sets his down on the table. In one of Fulci's most gleeful moments, and a very Hitchcockian scene, Margie picks them both up and switches them drunkenly in her hands. Extreme-close-up of Lester's eyes and a sweaty brow, trying hard to follow the path of the poisoned glass. It's hilarious, and a sign of what Fulci's primarily trying to achieve here: a comedy, albeit of the blackest sort, and something really quite refined. It was easy to see humour in his earlier films, but this was more often than not unintentional, to be found in terrible effects, worse acting and the anachronisms that abounded. When he tried for the intentional stuff, it was hammy at best. Here, the Fulch is comparable to the Hitch – really, he is – the murder scenes still contain an OTT level of gratuity, but the entire thing is funny as hell in a very nuanced, and very black, way. More on that later, though.

After eventually killing Margie (I won't spoil it, but after the Hitchcock subversion, it's pure, blood-spattered Lucio), he dumps her body but is seen by a bum sleeping at the refuse tip he made her corpse disappear into. The bum smuggles himself into Lester's car and blackmails him for a few hundred bucks and some directions into town ("shortest way is through those woods"). Lester follows him and runs him down – miraculously, the bum lives and manages to send out a vague identikit of his attacker. Lester's forced to ditch the beard and the glasses, but it doesn't stop him seeking out more victims and trying to cash in the spoils. Meanwhile, Lester's left to contend with his own demons incarnate in a split personality, and we hear him replay their conversations. This is one element of the plot that Fulci deals with quite anaemically – it's not out of place in the narrative, but it's written in a forced manner and played almost supernatural, not psychological.

To expand on what I've said above, Fulci has made a thriller film that abides less by the conventions of the giallo, and owes more to Hitchcock. Fulci's been compared to the legendary director before, particularly with his magnum opus The New York Ripper, but that is far more of a giallo film than a Hitchcock one. The difference, aside from a very sleazy feel that isn't necessarily present in a Hitchcock movie but is certainly there in Touch of Death, is the humour. In The New York Ripper, the humour was, by-and-large, unintentional: the quacking killer and the nutty dialogue was obvious and brash. Fulci was making a balls-to-wall exploitation film, and it was a genre best effort. Here, Fulci disposes with this sort of thing and displays his intelligence as a screenwriter. If I was to compare Touch of Death with a Hitchcock flick, I'd compare it to Frenzy: Lester trying to clamp the jaw of a slightly rigor-mortis afflicted corpse (and failing), before being pulled over by an overzealous traffic cop and trying to pass the strangled woman off as asleep recalls the scene in Frenzy with Jon Finch and the potatoes. For a moment there, you're siding with the villain, curling your toes and hoping the hapless cops don't twig to the appalling crime quite literally under their noses.

The gore's quite well done; as good as anything Fulci did in the seventies. Perhaps even better – there's some very Grand Guignol stuff here, and I had echoes of Herschell Lewis' The Wizard of Gore in the opening sequence, Brett Halsey doing his best stony-faced Ray Sager impersonation. The acting isn't terrific by the supporting cast, but Halsey turns in a pretty good performance as Lester – a charismatic, middle-aged lothario with the ladies, a mewling, pathetic degenerate while gambling with his mobster friends, and a borderline-personality disordered schizophrenic by himself.

Fulci was responsible for the screenplay, and he's no stranger to that, having written most of his films. This is probably the best I've seen of his own directed scripts – aside from possessing the Hitchcockian element and far less, well, dumb dialogue, it's paced tremendously well. It's absolutely cracking, from the opening to the final frame. Fulch is even on the cutting edge – sitting down to one of his TV dinners, Lester watches a hilarious news report saying that the cops have found some of 'The Maniac's' DNA, and the news reporter even quotes the code that had been located. On January 22, 1988 (the year this film was released), Colin Pitchfork became the first man convicted of murder using DNA in Britain. Could Lester Parson be the first celluloid antagonist fearing forensic DNA analysts?

Some critics have complained that Touch of Death is poorly shot, lacking some directorial and cinematographic flourishes present in the director's films set in more diverse locales (The Beyond, Zombie, et al). I think this was part of what Fulci was trying to achieve: it's very much a film set in Lester's world, which is very dark, drab and ordinary. Probably the best comparison that could be drawn here is to William Lustig's Maniac. Touch of Death has a similar, but decidedly less sleazy, city feel and it works quite well.

I'm a big Fulci fan, and I've seen most of the popular stuff. And even though Lucio is the undisputed master of Italian exploitation with entires like Zombie, The Beyond and The New York Ripper, Touch of Death is pure quality. Not as exploitative as the others and nowhere near as revered, but it must be considered essential Fulci, a Brit/American-modelled thriller that remains fresh and suspenseful twenty years later. It's hard to know how Fulci saw his work – my feeling is that he was an awesome director who was more-than-basically competent but only marred by a lack of cash and supporting skill – but Touch of Death is definitely his golden moment as an "auteur". It falls apart a bit in the last twenty minutes, and is occasionally afflicted by Fulci's awkwardness in handling unfamiliar themes, but in general its probably the best example of his work as a director and a screenwriter. Highly recommended.
Video
Poor. This has been done by the Dutch mob EC Entertainement. I have their House on the Edge of the Park disc, and it's of worse quality. The picture is very dull and muddy, VHS quality stuff. Shriek Show, which seems to release a lot of EC Entertainement's DVDs, should have done a better job: it's in the same ratio, but I haven't previewed that disc or seen screen-caps to make a comparison here. Disappointing.

Touch of Death was shot for television on 16mm, and has been presented here in the 4:3 ratio.
Audio
Also disappointing, but thankfully we're given subtitles this time – poorly spelled and Oddly Capitalised at Times, but at least we don't miss any dialogue. Three audio tracks are provided – English, French and Italian 2.0 – and the sound is generally clear. Uneven, but passable. Subtitles included are English and Dutch.
Extra Features
A photo gallery, which is an insulting excuse for a special feature. Contains five cover scans of international Touch of Death video and DVD releases.

Shriek Show have managed a 77-minute Fulci audio interview and some snippets from actress Zora Kerova and a Fulci "historian". That's definitely the release to seek out, and I shall certainly do so myself.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A revelation. I was putting this off down to misgivings that said that post-1982 Fulci was pretty execrable, but Touch of Death is one of the legend's all-time greats. It's not necessarily groundbreaking thematically, but it's groundbreaking in the sense that Lucio Fulci is operating at his most accomplished as a movie director and screenwriter here. It's not flawless – there are plot twists where suspension of belief is required, and these are present most in the final twenty minutes, where the film threatens to crumble (but does manage to stay afloat). That said, for the most part Touch of Death is smart, gory, incredibly funny and incredibly underrated. Essential viewing.

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