Review: Ænigma (1988)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #707

 

Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 15, 1988
Sub-Genre: Psychological Horror
Country of Origin: Italy, Yugoslavia
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: Lucio Fulci
Producer: Ettore Spagnuolo
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo
Special Effects: Lucio Fulci
Cinematography: Luigi Ciccarese
Score: Carlo Maria Cordio
Editing: Vanio Amici
Studios: A.M. Trading International S.r.l., Sutjeska Film
Distributor: Image Entertainment
Stars: Jared Martin, Lara Naszinsky, Ulli Reinthaler, Sophie d’Aulan, Jennifer Naud, Riccardo Acerbi, Kathi Wise, Milijana Zirojevic, Dragan Bjelogrlić, Ljiljana Blagojević, Franciska Spahic, Dusica Zegarac, Zorica Lesic

 

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Dean Martin “On An Evening In Roma”

[2] Carlo Maria Cordio “Sudden Death”

[3] Douglas Meakin “Head Over Heels”

 

Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? That’s easy – they gave us the Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci. The Italian maestro amassed over fifty directing credits over the course of a career that spanned five separate decades and was one of the most prolific filmmakers ever to herald from Bel Paese. His output varied wildly from comedies, dramas and spaghetti westerns to musicals of all things.

He was also there or thereabouts when the giallo craze took off but found his true niche in 1979 when Zombi 2 made him an internationally recognizable name. Quick to capitalize on his newfound popularity, Fulci thrashed out the Gates of Hell Trilogy around the turn of the eighties before shocking and appalling audiences worldwide with his sleazy exploitation number, The New York Ripper. Things were clearly on the up for the great Italian underdog.

Alas, it all turned to shit soon after as his next projects, Manhattan Baby, and Mexican barbarian fantasy, Conquest, failed to locate their audience and signalled the start of things to come for Fulci. Desperate to get back to winning ways and crack the stubborn Stateside nut, he attempted to cash in on the Flashdance craze with his 1984 film, Murder Rock, although he reined it in with regards to the gushing grue that had earned him his reputation and, while there were certainly flashes of his former brilliance to be discerned, it ultimately amounted to precious little.

Ill health didn’t help his cause either and bouts of hepatitis C, cirrhosis and diabetes plagued him right through the mid-eighties, while he was no longer provided the budgets required to accommodate his vision. Most of his later work wasn’t released outside of Europe and he wound up relegated to humdrum TV productions. That said, he seldom stopped working and Ænigma is just one of his more intriguing works from the tail end of his career.

Just so we’re clear, this flimsy supernatural revenge tale is some way from a classic and fits rather snugly into the so-bad-it’s good category. Poorly written and acted, it is also relatively powder puff with regards to the all-important bloodshed that Fulci fans demand. Taking its cue from the likes of Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Richard Franklin’s Patrick, it’s something of a mish-mash of creative ideas, few of which actually gel together. That said, there are few movies anything like as utterly harebrained and you have to admire the fact he continued to stick to his guns, even though the glory days were evidently in his slipstream. Aside from his 1989 film, House of Clocks, and perhaps his last half-decent offering, A Cat in The Brain, from the following year, Ænigma is perhaps the only one of his later works worthy of recollection.

Our story takes place at St. Mary’s College, a boarding school in Boston, where ugly duckling Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic) finds herself the butt of a cruel joke that goes horribly wrong. After being hit by a passing car, she is left fighting for her life and in an indefinite coma, while those indirectly responsible for this unfortunate turn of events show little to no remorse.

Soon afterwards, new girl Eva (Laura Naszinski) arrives on campus, having suffered a mild nervous breakdown, and wastes no time in informing her roommate Jennifer (Ulli Reinthaler) that she’s rather partial to the cock. Within no time, she has set her sights on narcissistic gym teacher Fred (Riccardo Acerbi) and let’s just say that this midnight rendezvous doesn’t end at all well for him.

Fulci plays his hand early doors as it soon becomes abundantly clear that Eva is effectively a vessel for Kathy’s bitter revenge. Each time another of the students perishes, the comatose girl’s vital signs perk up, and the neurologist responsible for Kathy’s wellbeing, Dr. Robert Anderson (Jared Martin) is at a loss to explain this anomaly. Meanwhile, Eva is swiftly expelled from the academy for unruly behavior and finds herself at a plush rest home, where she continues to do Kathy’s foul bidding.

Naturally, the good doctor takes it upon himself to investigate and his moonlighting leads him directly into the sack with Eva’s former bunkmate Jennifer. Presumably, the answers to this bizarre mystery lie directly within the young girl’s vagina and bedside manner just so happens to be one of his specialties. Had I mentioned that he has already bedded Eva? Dr. Anderson does like his house calls. As you would imagine, she’s not best pleased by being rejected in favor of Jennifer and, with Kathy pulling the strings from intensive care, it’s all about to go off big time.

While the outline for Ænigma sounds quite intriguing on paper, the execution leaves a great deal to be desired and this makes for a somewhat sterile 85 minutes of toing and froing. There are enough loose plot threads to fashion an American quilt, many of the characters are lamentable, the acting is second-rate to the point of cringeworthy and the kills that have long since become a staple of Fulci’s work are nowhere near as elaborate or inventive as we’ve come to expect from one of the most roving of lenses in the business. That said, two scenes in particular stand out, for completely different reasons I hasten to add, and it seems only fair that I pay affectionate homage to both in turn.

The first I have decided to call 🐌 You’ve Got Snail 🐌 and, if you were to ask me for my all-time ten favorite Fulci dispatches, then this one would slither effortlessly into the middle reaches. One early victim, Virginia, falls foul to a bucket load of murderous gastropods who miraculously appear on her bedstead and commence to suffocate the poor girl while she watches on paralysed by fear.

Ignore for a moment the fact that snails are hardly known for their breakneck speed and just roll with it as inexplicably it ends up a decidedly unnerving transaction, never more so than when her antagonists make a B-line for her available orifices. The entire scene is almost entirely bereft of grue but it’s a rare case of less being more and shows that Fulci hasn’t yet surrendered his touch.

The second is memorable for the wrong reasons and I have opted for the catchy title ☠ Heads You Lose ☠ to celebrate its ridiculousness. Having just received a full service from lustful boyfriend Tim, Kim peels back the duvet to reveal that someone has kindly subtracted his bonce. Horrified, she attempts to flee the scene and dashes across the hallway to another door, only to find Tim’s headless corpse waiting for her there too.

What transpires from here is beyond priceless and calls to mind the episode of The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob repeatedly treads on a vast array of strategically placed garden hoes. Each fresh door she opens, Tim’s headless corpse greets her, and this process plays out a dozen or so times before Fulci (known for his sick and twisted sense of humor) brings things in for the ultimate hug.

You see, the only conceivable means of escape appears to be Kim’s third-floor window and she is straddling it fearfully when a poster of Tom Cruise offering his famed one thumb salute from Top Gun transforms into an open portal for Kathy’s wandering spirit. As she ghosts through the lacquer with both opposable digits raised at full mast, Kim can take absolutely no more and tosses herself through the opening, plummeting the twenty feet or so to her death. Here’s the kicker; her broken body ironically lands mere inches away from Tim’s decapitated head. In the history of ridiculous kills, this one is right up there with the most utterly ludicrous and impossible to look away from for a solitary second.

Alas, two golden eggs is not sufficient to make up for the dense yoke we’ve been required to wade through to claim them and Ænigma really is one for Fulci completionists and self-medicated punishment gluttons only. It’s a mess of a movie from stem to stern, a seed of a good idea which is regrettably sown during an enforced hose pipe ban and never afforded the natural light to flourish.

The thing is, like the similarly misguided Murder Rock, there’s a certain undeniable train wreck charm that opens it up for repeat scrutiny. However, I certainly won’t be breaking a sweat to do so. The snails had the right idea and it earned one such lucky mollusc an impromptu photo opportunity with the great Rocky Balboa no less. Slow and steady wins the race you see.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 5/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: To be fair to Ænigma, there’s a spot of decapitation and a lopped off forearm to feast those peepers on, although the meager budget is made crystal clear in these moments. For me, it’s all about those snidey snails, and I slept with one eye open and mouth firmly shut after watching these slugs with digs do their darndest. Toss in a couple of naked writhing bodies and it’s a thumbs up from Tom, two from Kathy and a resolute salute from Keeper.

 

Read Zombi 2 Appraisal
Read The Beyond Appraisal
Read City of The Living Dead Appraisal
Read House By The Cemetery Appraisal
Read The New York Ripper Appraisal
Read Murder Rock Appraisal
Read A Cat in The Brain Appraisal

 

 

 

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