I don’t know that I believe in psychics. Brushing aside any of the science (or pseudoscience) about the human brain and how much of it is actually “tapped into” or not in that regard or whether that’s all just bullshit fueled by fantastic fiction (surely not), I’m just unsure on a core, cynical level that there are folks who can access some nebulous spirit world or glimpse into the future simply with the power of their mind. But like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, and this is one of the many struggles that goes on daily between my rational and irrational mind. I want to believe in things like this, because I want to believe that the world isn’t as drably mundane as it actually is. By that same token, I’ve never personally encountered any convincing evidence to prove the converse (to be fair, it takes a lot to convince me).
Maybe it goes back to my love of Godzilla films and Eiji Tsuburaya’s philosophy of having a sense of wonder about the world and wanting to pass this on to others through his work. I mean, if things like psychics or Bigfoot or UFOs don’t exist, all that leaves is a workaday existence filled with the crushing realities of life (I know, I’m starting to get depressing here). Contrarily, these things really probably shouldn’t be proven one way or the other, because then they would become as unremarkable as everything else we face daily. In some ways, this is the same function that film bestows. Cinema provides us with lives less ordinary, and we live in these narratives for a time, staving off the real world and all its problems, even as it reflects and/or addresses them. My reasoning on all of this may read as murky to you, but that’s only because it’s murky to me (I’m notoriously bad at being black or white on a lot of things; the curse of a semi-open mind). So I’m okay (and we, as an audience, are okay) with investing in the possibility that Virginia Ducci (Jennifer O’Neill) can see a murder she wasn’t actually present for in Lucio Fulci’s Seven Notes in Black (aka The Psychic aka Sette Note in Nero aka Death Tolls Seven Times). I mean, why watch a film about a psychic, otherwise?
When she was just a young girl, Virginia “saw” her mother’s death while she was miles and miles away. Now an adult, Virginia, housewife of the wealthy Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko), suddenly begins to have visions again, this time of a murder. Obsessed with and plagued by her second sight, she pushes on in her investigation, placing herself in mortal peril.
Time in this film is fragmented in much the same way that reality is fragmented in other Fulci films (in fact, I would argue they essentially are the same). We are constantly taken from the linear present to the murder, which is never presented in a straight line. We get a shot of a smashed mirror, a shot of a yellow (giallo) cigarette in a blue ashtray, a shot of a man’s feet dragging across a carpet, etcetera. This continuously happens to Virginia throughout the film, and it is usually accompanied by a quick zoom into her eyes (a form of Fulci’s signature ocular trauma motif?). In other words, the camera attacks her, and the result is a disorientating reordering of the real world. In this sense, Virginia is brought into Hell (or a hell), similar to that which bursts forth through the portal under the hotel in The Beyond and so forth, the difference here being that a person is the gateway rather than a place, and she is drawn through her mind to this Hell rather than this Hell being drawn through a door to us. Another contrast is that Virginia’s reality is a knot ceaselessly being untangled, whereas in The Beyond, reality is being twisted, though both stories will eventually still make some sort of sense in their own way (one is just more literal than the other, arguably).
Also fitting with Fulci’s other work, Seven Notes in Black is a fatalistic film (as films about psychics tend to be). Virginia has witnessed something, and she must follow the line of it to the bitter end. There’s no getting around it, because this is the only way for her to unburden herself of her visions (at least for now). Plus, there is the aspect that what’s coming down the pike is inexorable, despite attempts to avoid it. The segments have to be pieced together in the proper sequence for order to be reinstated (whether or not this reinstated order is better or worse than what came before it is debatable). Yet, as the pieces fall into place, Virginia understands (as do we) that she is following a preordained narrative; she just didn’t realize it at first. Her free will, then, is robbed from her, for the most part. The only question left open is whether or not she will survive (you can argue that her free will kicks in here, but previous evidence makes that claim suspect), and this provides the tension of the film. Just because you can see into another time or across continents, doesn’t mean you can halt the universe’s forward movement. There is still cause and effect, but Virginia’s agency is limited in its influence on them.
From what I’ve seen of Fulci’s filmography, I feel fairly confident stating that Seven Notes in Black is not only his most coherent film, but it’s also his most accomplished (I’m sure some would contend that Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the winner in the latter category). The film stays on point from start to finish. It builds its story from disparate elements, and said story remains unambiguous despite the ambiguity upon which it’s constructed. There is also a lack of gore to be found here. The most ludicrous visual we get is of a dummy having its plastic head bashed repeatedly off a cliff side (this was pretty amusing, all things considered, and proof that you can take the man out of the outrageousness, but you can’t take the outrageousness out of the man; not completely). The film’s weakest point, ironically enough, is O’Neill. She’s certainly attractive enough, and can pull off being anxious, but she has no real presence onscreen, otherwise. Thankfully, Fulci is enough of a visual stylist to keep things interesting. It’s surprising to me that the filmmaker doesn’t get more respect because of work like this (maybe because it was so infrequent in his oeuvre), but he deserves it, as does this film.
MVT: Fulci shows some real restraint here, proving that ridiculous gore wasn’t the only thing he could do very well when given the chance.
Make or Break: The prologue sets up the premise nicely, and it’s as enigmatic as it is audacious.