Virginia Ducci has a form of second sight, which enables her, walking in the schoolyard of her Florentine convent, to see her mother's Don't Torture a Duckling-esque suicide leap from the cliffs of Dover. Years later she's freshly-married to an Italian businessman, played suavely by Gianni Garko, but still prone to hallucinations and premonitions. She has one such vision as she's driving through a tunnel, blacking out but somehow managing to navigate the tunnel and pull in neatly to the side of the road. The vision apparently shows a limping, moustachioed man, a fifty-something woman with her skull smashed in, a smashed mirror, a lushly decorated red room and a body apparently being sealed behind an in-construction stone wall. Virginia travels on to one of her husband's properties, which she's never visited before but wants to renovate. Realising that one of the rooms was featured in her vision, she takes a pickaxe to a wall and uncovers the skeletal remains of a 25 year old model. Her husband Francesco, a former lover of the model, is initially suspected and arrested, but is released after evidence comes to light suggesting he was in America at the time of the murder. Meanwhile, Virginia is trying to reconcile the inconsistencies in her vision with the facts as they appear to be-why did she see the victim as being much older than she really was, and why does the moustachioed man, who she tracks down with surprising ease, not walk with a limp?
As I've previously stated, this film plays like an extended riff on the central conceit behind A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, specifically dreams as visions, as opposed to jumbled webs of nonsense and half-memories being spun by our subconscious mind. It also begins with a reprise of the finale of Don't Torture a Duckling, with a dodge dummy tumbling down a cliff to its doom, albeit there are fewer sparks here when the dummy makes contact with the cliff, and the effect is less spatially disorientating in general. The eerie driving sequence, which manages to imbue a nondescript stretch of road and tunnels with an uncanny menace, may have also spawned future Fulci work, sadly, with Door to Silence featuring interminable stretches of John Savage driving through the American countryside.
In order to better sell the conceit of the dream vision, Fulci makes Virginia a patient of a parapsychologist, played by Marc Porel, who is predisposed to believe her seemingly outlandish claims. Saying that, he does toss the occasional large pinch of salt at her claims, and doesn't just swallow everything willy-nilly. He also hints at the possibility that this film takes place in a Tenebrae-like very, very slight alternate universe, asking Virginia at one point "Who didn't have a relative or friend who had dreamed of someone being run over, then the next day that person is really run over?" Speaking empirically, I'd wager that quite a lot of people would not know anyone to whom that description could be affixed.
Luca, Porel's character, also lays the groundwork for the film's big twist (SPOILAGE AHEAD), by pointing out to Virginia that the mounting inconsistencies between her vision and what apparently happened to the dead model suggest that she may have had a premonition, rather than a flashback. The precise nature of Virginia's second sight is never made clear, but we know from the film's opening she can witness events which are happening elsewhere in the present. She makes references to premonitions and calls herself a 'clairvoyant', both of which would suggest that she primarily does deal in seeing the future, not the past (although clairvoyance can also mean a general ability to experience things 'beyond normal sensory contact').
However, it's a fairly natural assumption to think that she's had an extra-sensory flashback when she recognises the room in Francesco's house from her vision, and finds a walled-in body in the exact spot where she'd had a vision of its having being sealed in. It'd be easy to dismiss the film for dealing in outrageous coincidences when you learn that the vision was indeed a premonition, and had nothing directly to do with the model's death. However, one must bear in mind that the second walling-in can only happen because of the discovery of the first one, which was itself sparked by the vision itself. In this way, the vision becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the double-Poe isn't egregious. Plus, if you've already killed and walled in one young woman, why wouldn't you do it again? (I mean, there are lots of reasons, so don't think about Garko's plan for dealing with Virginia too closely. At all.)
There are some clues as to the twist in the cinematic language of the flashback, although it'd be a fool's errand to attempt to guess the twists in films which engage in dreamlike imagery by analysing said imagery with cold logic. Nevertheless, it's worth pointing out that the old woman's face is shown as viewed by another person's (/a camera's) perspective, whereas the shots of the sealing-in are all first-person. What's more, this first-person is clearly still alive. Also, the fact that we can clearly see the woman's dead face suggests that she's not been walled-in (unless the killer fitted the makeshift grave with a light source), or at least couldn't have been the person who's watching themselves being entombed. And, if I had to guess who the person through whose eyes Virginia sees was, I'd have to go out on a limb and say that it was probably herself. However, as I said, it's all well and good to employ such rigour on a third or fourth viewing of the film, but when you're dealing with fractured dream visions it generally wouldn't pay to be so logical in your interpretations when first watching it. Although, as I've just shown, it would pay here. But not always.
Anyway, such a reading of the film's images depends on a correct interpretation of certain images and conventions. And what Fulci is really interrogating here is the inherent truth, or untruth, of images. (Bear with me...) One of the main innovations Dario Argento had brought to the genre was to imbue his films with intellectual concerns, Bird... being a perfect example, with its questioning of gender roles and interrogation of the reliability of subjective vision. Fulci (for the most part) removes the subjective from his images here, instead presenting them as disembodied fragments. These images do not necessarily mean anything on their own, but can be interpreted by us, and Virginia, to mean certain things. As the film progresses, and we're privvy to more information, the original interpretations are shown to be erroneous. The very nature of the vision, originally assumed to be flashback, is shown to be wrong, but there are also more specific errors.
As an example, we assume that the limping man is Gabriele Ferzetti because he's the only man who appears recognisably in the vision. And Virginia assumes the dead person is the fifty year old woman, again because she 'sees' no-one else. What's crucial here is context; when we're first presented with the images we attempt to construct a coherent straight-line narrative from them, even with a paucity of concrete information. Then, with the accumulation of knowledge, we're able to fill the gaps between the images, allowing us to recontextualise and reinterpret them, and getting one step closer to the 'truth', if such a thing exists (it does here, because it's a mystery genre film, but does it in life?? OK, I'll leave it there). On a purely cinematographic level, the Ferzetti assumption, as an example, displays the suggestive power of editing, and shows how keen we are to make associations and connections between things in order to make sense of them.
Speaking of Ferzetti, he's prominently billed here, but has a very contained, and temporally-short, role in the film. The nature of the plot is such that he's required to assume the role of assumed-killer when he does appear, in a kind of drawn out version of the red herring moment which is afforded most characters in a giallo. This, of course, leads the experienced viewer to discount the likelihood of his actually being the killer, and to look elsewhere for suspects. And, apart from Porel's whiter-than-white character, who could adopt a Julia Durer-esque tactic of taking advantage of having Virginia's confidence by enacting her visions IRL (in real life, you fuddy duddies) but never really gets close to being a suspect, there aren't many other possibilities. Other than the actual killer, of course.
Having a seemingly obviously guilty character like Ferzetti handy gives said killer, Gianni Garko's Francesco, a clear acting choice (assuming that Fulci didn't drag performances of his choice from his players, which, by all accounts, is a safe assumption to make)-he can try to blend into the background, unobserved by those searching for clues and suspects, or he can play up his sympathetic qualities, the better to highlight the dark and untrustworthy nature of Ferzetti. This latter option can't be too hammy, though, or it'll attract suspicion by virtue of its seeming overabundance of virtue. Anyway, although Ferzetti does bring some nuance and hints that there's more to his character than meets the eye, he-like Garko-is extremely constrained by the general demands of the role, and turns in a performance which isn't too difficult from the classic Jean Sorel or George Hilton. It's easy to criticise actors for being too bland (which I've done recently with Sorel's reactions to his daughter's death in Lizard), but bear in mind that they're constantly making choices, and sometimes the choice which best serves the film, and plot, is to downplay their reactions, thus keeping their motives obfuscated and obscure. Obviously.
The final half hour here, once we establish that the vision was a premonition rather than a flashback, is rather too devoted to depicting every single piece of the puzzle slotting into place. I've only watched the English dub, which may well be more sledgehammery than the Italian version, but the running voiceover flashbacks which emphasise how we need to reinterpret previous events and statements are slightly too prevalent. There's no need to show every little part of the puzzle slotting into place; give us a general overview and trust us to complete the final few pieces ourselves. Fulci was likely proud of the visual and plotting complexities, but it shows its hand just a bit too much. On the other hand, the film ends very abruptly, eschewing a happy-ever-after coda, not even showing the moment the killer is properly taken down. Fulci's happy to let us extrapolate here, probably because the extra couple of minutes would've been no different to what we'd seen in a hundred other gialli.
And this film is different to other gialli. It's not necessarily a thrill-a-minute adrenaline ride, but it's a very neatly conceived and executed film, and, as with all his pre-Zombi gialli, would serve as an excellent rebuttal to anyone who dismisses Fulci as a talentless gorehound. Elements of his later work can be seen here, with another example of his fondness for his blown-out crime scene photography, and a hesitant attempt at the zoom-driven pick-axe action which would recur in the Gates of Hell trilogy. But it's the elements which gradually, and sometimes suddenly, disappeared over the years-the plotting, the subtext and the graceful camerawork and editing-which make this film what it is, and leave you wondering what might have been if this had been his global smash instead of (the still excellent) Zombi 2...