From Lucio Fulci’s latter days as a filmmaker comes Aenigma, an Argento-like revenge flick set at a women’s college in Boston, although principal photography took place in Sarajevo.
Written with Giorgio Mariuzzo, Aenigma takes the basic plot elements of a ‘prank gone wrong’ horror flick, combines it with a bare bones setting and bare bones surrealism, and spits out a movie with a superfluous main character, and a purposeful avoidance of exploitation.
At St. Mary’s College in Boston, Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic), daughter of the school’s cleaning lady, Mary (Dusica Zegarac), is being prepped for a big date by her roommate, Kim (Sophie d’Aulan), and her boyfriend, Tom (Dragan Bjelogrlic). They go through the usual 1980’s teen outfit montage trope, before Kathy is finally dolled up and ready to meet her date, the college’s athletics instructor, Fred (Riccardo Acerbi). But, all is not well. The girls at the school despise Kathy’s humble origins, and the date is a cruel prank, set up just so all the girls can gather and laugh at Kathy’s presumption that a hunk like Fred would actually like her. Kathy flees from her tormentors into the path of a truck, and is left in a coma at the hospital.
Later, new student Eva (Lara Lamberti) arrives. She has a mysterious origin, having just been released from inpatient treatment at a mental hospital. She arrives at the school with only one thing on her mind: getting laid. She makes her own date with Fred on the first day, but doesn’t get her big chance at some loving because, from her hospital bed, Kathy is able to reach out psychically and take her revenge on the pranksters that left her so broken. Fred is the first victim, strangled by his own reflection that steps out from a mirror. The film is off and running at this point.
Over the course of the film, it’s shown that Eva shares memories with Kathy. It’s implied that Eva is a vessel that can be used by Kathy to get her revenge, yet, with Kathy’s ability to kill from the hospital, viewers will be wondering what is the point of having Eva? Eva’s significance to the plot should be more than just initiating exposition among the other characters, or attracting various males. She should be the one strangling hunks or otherwise murdering students, yet she does none of that. Her character has inflated importance that the actual plot of the film does not justify. That’s not a knock on Lamberti. She did a fine job.
The story lurches on for 85 minutes, with Kathy adding to her body count, Eva getting more and more superfluous, and Kathy’s doctor, top-billed Jared Martin, lurking the halls of the school looking for students he can sleep with. Finally there is climax, and an ending that would have made a lot of sense had Eva been the one who did all the killing.
Before the first act is passed, any viewer familiar with Argento’s Phenomena or Suspiria will recognize that in many ways, this is an Argento film, only with a lesser sense of storytelling and lesser photography. The dreamlike aspects that could make a film about a psychic killer more compelling are mostly absent. Visually, the film is quite dull. Mostly taking place at night, the film’s palette is greyish-blue. The sets are few and barely dressed. The women’s dormitory has no lived-in look whatsoever, the only decoration being some posters of contemporary blockbuster movies on the wall. It looks as if Fulci didn’t have much of a budget to work with, but that’s little excuse for a set so barren.
There is a good movie lurking within this production, yet it seems as if Fulci and company made a conscious decision to not make that movie. Besides the convolutions in the plot, there were many opportunities for exploitation that were ignored. This is a movie where sex and nudity would not be gratuitous, yet there is barely any. It’s a movie that could have gone much heavier on blood and gore, and it would only have made things more interesting. It’s a movie that had room for a much more rapid pace, yet Fulci was content with the movie lumbering along to its clumsy denouement.
Aenigma is a surprisingly disappointing movie. It lacks liveliness. It could have been good, and it could have been shitty. Yet, it’s neither. It’s just a mediocre horror flick from a filmmaker who, at other times, was a giant of genre films.