This oft-maligned film, coming as it did on the heels of his beloved dead trilogy (City of the Living Dead [1980 / trailer], The Beyond [1981 / trailer], and The House by the Cemetery [1981 / trailer]) and his infamous giallo slasher The New York Ripper (1982 / trailer), has always been one of Lucio Fulci's less respected and, in turn, less popular horror films. And while it would be nice to say "unjustly so," we cannot bring ourselves to lie so blatantly. At best, Manhattan Baby is a mildly interesting if well shot scattershot mess that, with the exception of two gore scenes, never truly involves the viewer and that, if instigating any response at all from the viewer, instigates annoyance.
The title itself, for example, is symptomatic of the film in that it lacks reason or any true connection to the movie, other than for the fact that a good portion of the film takes place in Manhattan. But while there is truly a babe with bad 80s hair in the movie – the delicious Cinzia de Ponti, Miss Italy 1979, who plays the doomed au-pair Jamie Lee – there is no baby: the two kids of importance in the movie, at approx. 10 or 11 years of age apiece, are well past the age of diapers. No, the movie's title is just a late and unnecessary reference to a horror film released fourteen years earlier in 1968, Rosemary's Baby (trailer) – an inane reference at best, seeing that the two flicks have nothing really in common.
Manhattan Baby does look good, it must be said. On the DVD we have, there is an interview with one of the film's scriptwriter, Dardano Sacchetti, and among other things he claims is that right after filming started, the budget was cut by two-thirds. Wherever they cut costs in the production as a result, it does not seem to have been in the cinematography: the broad widescreen is clear and the color of the film stock intense and sharp – the cinematography and play between wide shots and intense close-ups often brings to mind the Sergio Leone's operatic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968 / trailer) where, in all truth, it fits much better than in this horror film, which would have benefitted with a few less indiscriminate close-ups of eyes and mouths.
In the interview found on the DVD, Dardano Sacchetti makes another statement which is indicative of this movie. When speaking of the producer, Fabrizio De Angelis, Sacchetti mentions how he had a love/hate relationship with the man because the man constantly interfered; a few minutes later, Sacchetti follows this by stating De Angelis gave him all the freedom in the world. Hmm: an interfering producer that gives complete freedom – narrative-wise, Manhattan Baby makes about as much sense as that statement.
The plot of Manhattan Baby – Sacchetti's attempt, to use his words, at a horror "electronico" after so many Gothic horrors – lifts its basic premise from the Charlton Heston vehicle, The Awakening (trailer), which had come out two years earlier: an archeologist breaks into an Egyptian tomb and thus releases a curse that inhabits the body of his daughter and people start dying. In Manhattan Baby, the setting outside of Egypt is changed from England to Manhattan, and the possession starts immediately instead of 18 years later – but the intention and aim of the evil is nevertheless a lot less clear.
The opening scenes in Egypt are perhaps the best of the film. The crosscutting between Professor George Hacker (Christopher Connelly of Django 2: il grande ritorno [1987 / trailer]) as he discovers and desecrates the tomb and the transferal of the curse to his daughter Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) by a blind woman via a medallion is both concise and visually effective. The bit about George being struck blind is extremely cheesy and, seeing how quickly it is resolved later in the film – he simply suddenly regains his eyesight – totally unnecessary. (One is given the feeling that after making him blind, the filmmakers didn't really know what to do with a blind man in the film, so they just gave him his sight back to simplify the narrative.) This opening segment of the film, as good as it is, also promptly exhibits two illogicalities that run throughout the movie: an evil that kills everyone around the cursed but not the cursed (in this case, George's Egyptian assistant, who gets impaled in the first gore highlight of the film), and parents that don't act like real people (George's wife Emily [Laura Lenzi], a photographer, leaves her young daughter completely alone – in a foreign land, no less – for an extended period of time as she runs around taking photographs for her job).
Prime later examples of the curse that kills everyone is the death of the building janitor (simply for responding to a call the check the electricity) or the sudden disappearance of one of Emily's coworkers in a room where he is replaced by a pile of sand and a scorpion – in truth, all deaths in the film are examples of the aimless curse, for by the end of the film not one of the family is in any way mortally harmed by the curse (au pairs do not count as immediate family) despite the fact that they are the only ones truly connected with causing the curse. As for unrealistic actions or reactions: a cobra is seen in the apartment at one point, but after the initial scare is never mentioned again; the above-mentioned coworker disappears and no one – neither the family nor anyone back at the office where he never returns to – sees it as necessary to report him as missing, much like they see no reason to call the police after the au pair disappears. But then, perhaps it is unfair to expect anyone or anything is the film to follow logic, as logic is something that seldom exists in Italian horror films.
Many of the events that drive the plot also seem extremely contrived, less based on possibility than either the need to propel the story onwards or deliver the feeling of supernatural – the problem being that the events seem so out of the blue that they make the viewer laugh. When Jamie Lee takes a Polaroid of her charges in the park, for example, and nothing develops, one might believe that she is enough of an anti-social slob to simply drop it on the grass instead of tossing it into a trashcan – au pairs are notoriously filthy, after all, and most Europeans don't know what trashcans even are – but when, as they walk away, the Polaroid suddenly develops to show just the medallion, the effect is less "Oh – scary!" than "Give me a fucking break." Likewise, of all the people that happen to walk by at that exact same moment and pick up the photo, the woman that does so is not only one of the few people in NYC who knows what the medallion is, but she even then mysteriously appears on a balcony as Emily walks by on the street below and, calling Emily by her name, drops the photo down to her with the name and number of the mysterious Adrian Mercato (Cosimo Cinieri), the only man in Manhattan who knows what's going on (and whose antique store Emily is walking by that very instance!). Should that all be supernatural and scary, or is that just bad scriptwriting? This is a question one asks oneself again and again throughout the movie – right on up to the final resolution, which leaves as many questions open as it does "resolve" the troubles of the Hacker family.
Manhattan Baby looks nice and makes no sense; the scares are intermittent and seldom effective, and the pacing is as odd as the characters and their actions are incomprehensible. But for the two gore scenes, the special effects are cheap and laughable, and though the cinematography looks to be a labor of love, most of the time the script conveys the feeling that it was made up as the film was shot. The result: a diffuse, hit-or-miss affair that offers some good laughs where it shouldn't and doesn't affect where it should. Hardcore Fulci completionists might want to give Manhattan Baby a go, for it has its rare moments, but everyone else is well advised to go for one his known classics instead.