Lucio Fulci, 1969
Starring: Jean Sorel, Marisa Mell, Elsa Martinelli, Alberto de Mendoza, John Ireland
George, a doctor, has a complicated relationship with his wife Susan, who suffers from debilitating asthma attacks. His mistress, Carol, is frustrated that he’s never going to leave Susan, but all of a sudden she drops dead, seemingly from an asthma attack. Her large life insurance policy helps George clear away sizable business debts, but also makes him the number one suspect. It soon becomes clear that Susan was accidentally poisoned with the wrong medication and did not die of an attack, but then George sees a stripper who looks exactly like her. Is Susan still alive, and trying to frame George for her murder, or is someone else trying to drive him out of his mind?
One on Top of the Other, also known as Perversion Story, is director Lucio Fulci’s first attempt at a giallo — previously his output was focused on comedies, drama, and a western, mostly mainstream fare. Though he would go on to make supernatural horror films like The Beyond, Zombie, and City of the Living Dead and earned the moniker “The Godfather of Gore,” One on Top of the Other is a swingin’ ‘60s exercise in sleaze, double-crosses galore, and murder most foul. The first of roughly five giallo films Fulci made in his career, this hints at the greatness found in 1971’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling.
Fulci and co-screenwriter Roberto Gianviti (who also worked with him on Sette note in nero) were allegedly inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and include a dizzying array of twists and turns in their script. Instead of becoming tedious and confusing, the way some giallo plots inevitably do, there is something wickedly fun about Fulci’s use of deception, double-dealing, and backstabbing. This is also really more of a straight-out thriller and lacks the standard giallo outline of a mysterious killer bumping off victims closer and closer to the protagonist. Instead, the protagonist, George — who is basically a slimy bastard — spends the film trying to figure out if his wife was murdered and by whom, and whether or not she is alive and has a hand in the mystery.
Lead Jean Sorel was a giallo regular, particularly in that period, in films like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Sweet Body of Deborah, A Quiet Place to Kill, Short Night of the Glass Dolls, and more. Though he’s a flat, unemotional actor, he’s handsome enough to pull off his role as the man at the center of the mystery. It’s difficult to like George, as he’s cheating on his sick wife, for whom he has little affection, preparing to dump his mistress, running his medical practice into the ground, and cheating his business partner, who also happens to be his brother, out of money. Yet, Sorel is charismatic enough to keep us following along, even when the plot gets a bit bogged down with dialogue and inaction. He’s not as well used as in Fulci’s next giallo, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, but his welcome, stylish appearance usually indicates an entertaining 90-minutes are ahead.
But Sorel can’t hold a candle to the film’s true star, Marisa Mell (Danger: Diabolik). She’s drop-dead gorgeous, as always, in her dual roles as the shrill, sickly wife and the uneducated, though glamorous exotic dancer who makes her entrance with a slow striptease on top of a motorcycle. It’s easy to see why George and Jane become obsessed and both pursue relationships with her during their investigation of her identity. And keep your eyes and ears peeled for supporting performances from American B-movie regulars John Ireland (Satan’s Cheerleaders) and Faith Domergue (This Island Earth), and an enjoyable soundtrack from Riz Ortolani.
Fulci’s dizzying sense of style and cinematography also emerge here, with shots of mirrors, close-ups, a (comical) face through a water cooler, and, my personal favorite of his trademarks… the unrestrained use of the zoom lens. Some of the film was shot on location in San Francisco and other cities in California, allegedly including a shot in the San Quentin State Prison gas chamber. This is far from his best work, but it’s also light years beyond his worst (Sweet House of Horrors is certainly a contender). It’s the least seen of his giallo films, but definitely deserves some attention from fans of Fulci, giallo films, and thrillers alike. And for those who find Fulci's work too sleazy, One on Top of the Other is incredibly tame by the standard set by the rest of his films, so it might be a decent introduction for newbies. Fortunately it’s available on DVD in a pleasant edition from Severin Films, which includes the excellent score on CD.