Although known primarily as the "Godfather of Gore," a legendary provocateur of '70s and '80s Italian exploitation horror cinema, Lucio Fulci earned his early directorial chops largely in the comedy genre. Crime capers, sex comedies, slapstick spy stuff. There were even a few uncharacteristically chaste historical costume dramas and family adventure films nestled in his pre-'80s filmography. They say horror and comedy are closely related, pratfalls and jump scares two sides of the same coin. Therefore, it should probably come as no surprise that Fulci had considerable facility in both of these "low arts."
Up until this past month, I was pretty well-versed in his horror and western output from the early '70s onward, but light on the earlier, sillier parts of his filmic resume. Partly because many of these films never made it to the States in any digitally watchable form and partly because...well, sloth, I guess. September was the month I decided to correct my slothful ways and watch a bunch of Fulci "firsts."
Felonious gangs, funny fangs, and fetching Fenechs. Here's some early Lucio for you, nitrous oxide not included...
#57 - I LADRI (1959)
Fulci's first bona fide feature directorial effort, a crime comedy starring Italy's then "Prince of Laughter" Totò. Italian-American gangster Castagnato (Armando Calvo) gets kicked out of the States for stealing and stashes his loot in jars of pineapple jam (yum!) bound for Naples. A family of bumbling Italian thieves working the docks stumble onto his stolen cache and broker a deal to help him get it out after he arrives. Meanwhile, wily Commissioner Gennaro (Totò) has his eagle-eye trained on Castagnato's condiment-intensive movements. The prerequisite caper movie double-crosses and vault safe switcheroos ensue. It's all good-natured and uncharacteristically benign, but then this is the earliest of early Fulci. A breezy 70-minute sit, despite the fact that the bootleg copy I watched was missing half the subtitles. Maybe somebody stashed those in jam jars too?
#58 - I MANIACI (1964)
In case you ever wondered what a Fulci-directed version of The Groove Tube or Kentucky Fried Movie might look like, I present to you The Maniacs. This loosely connected series of broadly comedic sketches (most of them very dated) has more misses than hits. There's a kinda funny skit about an office boss making a bad bet which requires him to accidentally pimp out his stuffy wife to one of his employees. Then another amusing one about a bourgeoisie couple that go antiquing in a monk's abbey. At the very least, there's the lovely Barbara Steele (eating spaghetti no less) to ogle in one or two scenes.
#59 - OH, THOSE MOST SECRET AGENTS (1964)
An oversexed government robot accidentally implants a secret formula into the teeth of two Italian dolts who everyone (the Russians, the Chinese, etc.) mistakes for master spies vacationing in the French Riviera. Cue the sunburn jokes, the early waterboarding techniques, more invasive dentistry than in all of Marathon Man. This is one of many screwball joints Fulci did with legendary Italian comedy duo Franco and Ciccio but the first to get U.S. distribution. Think Dumb and Dumber meets Spikes Like Us but several decades earlier. Side Note: I watched Oh, Those Most Secret Agents while nibbling on an "O, That's Good" frozen Oprah pizza. So, yep, I kept it "on brand" with this one. Incidentally, the movie was much better than the Winfrey's cardboard-flavored Italian munchies.
#60 - OPERATION ST. PETER'S (1967)
Spirited Catholic caper comedy starring Lando Buzzanca as a low-level thief who all too easily steals a giant Michelangelo statue from St. Peter's Basilica only to have shell-shocked American crime capo Edward G. Robinson nick it out from under him. Little does Robinson realize, the Vatican has a veritable army of regional priests on motorcycles ready to hunt them down. There's even a parade float Jesus who hops off the cross to steal a kid's bike and join in on the pursuit! This unofficial sequel to Dino Risi's Operation San Gennaro is solid Saturday afternoon holy heist comedy fun. Some confessional booth truth for you: I enjoyed this more than Ocean's 8.
#61 - BEATRICE CENCI (1969)
A dull but intermittently bloody historical patricide drama that affords Fulci an early opportunity to work on his future "Godfather of Gore" sobriquet. The U.S. title for this release was Conspiracy of Torture, and, true to its name, there is both conspiracy and torture to be had, much of it enacted upon poor Tomas Milian. I'm kinda surprised Lucio skipped out on the titular heroine's legendary beheading, instead choosing to fade out before she met her dome-toppling demise. I'm guessing the Fulci of '79 or '89 wouldn't have exercised nearly so much tasteful restraint.
#62 - WHITE FANG (1973)
About the time Fulci was starting to hit his early '70s animal-themed giallo stride with Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Don't Torture A Duckling, he threw his talents to the wolves with two back-to-back, kid-friendly Jack London adaptations. It's a better fit than you might suspect, and he gets a solid assist from writer/adventurer Franco Nero, drunken priest Fernando Rey, devoted nun Virna Lisi, and the wonderfully corrupt Yukon robber baron John Steiner (who I hear can put you in a lovely Beverly Hills duplex for the right price). But the real star of the show is the courageous canine himself, played by one very brave German Shepherd (or multiple German Shepherds, most likely). Not only does this pooch survive frostbite and dog fights, but he tangles with a bear and manages to escape raging river rapids in scenes that look a little too real for comfort (do PETA violations have a statute of limitations?) All that, and the poor pooch doesn't even get a name check in the credits! Fulci, you heartless bastard, what the fudge?!
#63 - CHALLENGE TO WHITE FANG (1974)
This shotgun sequel to the wildly successful Zanna Bianca the year before finds Fulci back to his old kinda-sorta-but-not-really kid-friendly tricks. This time, White Fang has a shared adoption sitch going with an annoying white kid and Franco Nero, all while being forced to endure bar brawls, angry mobs with wooden sticks, an eagle attack that temporarily blinds him, an avalanche, and a vicious dogsled race. Once again, our ready-for-whateva German Shepherd(s) gets absolutely no love in the credits. Can someone get this poor pup in touch with Old Yeller's manager?! He is seriously the Tom Cruise of canines.
#64 - DRACULA IN THE PROVINCES (1975)
A superstitious toothpaste tycoon travels to Romania for some business/pleasure. After a night of drunken debauchery at the castle of the mysterious Count Dragulescu (John Steiner, again), he awakens to find he has a taste for blood…and men's buttocks! Panicked that he may now be a homosexual—not so much that he may be a vampire—he visits a psychologist, crackpot mystics, conniving family members, angry employees, and leather-clad prostitutes, hoping to find explanations as well as sanguinary release. Italian sex comedy star Lando Buzzanca may not reach the same levels of cockroach-eating mania that Nic Cage achieved in the similarly-themed Vampire's Kiss, but D in the P is still pretty fun with a solid punch line ending. Fulci may have gotten more mileage out of Buzzanca's talents a few years earlier as a handsy politician in The Eroticist.
#65 - LA PRETORA (1976)
Imagine Judge Judy but 50 years younger with French Vogue cheekbones and an identical twin who does porn on the side. That's the gist of this randy courtroom sex comedy starring the exceptionally easy-on-the-eyes Edwige Fenech as a stern small town Italian magistrate who gives a con artist a sentence so stiff that he is compelled to track down her free-spirited sister in order to pull a bedroom blackmail scheme that will permanently oust her from the bench. Fenech does fantastic double duty (and then some) in the dual sister roles, but it's dirty old man Fulci who's obviously having the most fun here. If this movie were made today, Lucio's perpetually leering long lens would be immediately jailed for extreme contempt of court.
***Stay tuned for more gore in the month October, as I finish out Fulci's '80s/'90s horror resume just in time for Halloween!!! 🎃 🎃 🎃