Manhattan Baby was released in 1982, the same year as Lucio Fulci’s extremely controversial film The New York Ripper; however, the gore and sexual violence of that latter film is replaced with a more story-driven plot about a cursed Egyptian artifact that possesses the children of the Hacker family, allowing an ancient evil to run free in Manhattan, New York (hence the name). Fulci’s trademark directing style and penchant for strange, other-wordly stories is a feature of the film, but Elisa Briganti’s screenplay (who also worked on Fulci films The House By the Cemetery and Zombie) is much more cohesive than some of Fulci’s other works, keeping Manhattan Baby grounded despite the possibility for a lot of supernatural elements.
The story follows the Hackers from Egypt back to New York after Professor George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) explores an old tomb and becomes blinded by an old jewel; likewise, his daughter Susie (Briggita Boccoli) was given a pendant by an old woman in the desert, which ultimately possesses Susie and gives her the power to take voyages from New York to Egypt without the need for a plane ticket. Once the Hackers figure out that something weird is going on in their Manhattan apartment, it’s too late – time to call in an antiquities dealer named Mercato (Cosimo Cinieri) to help expel the evil.
Manhattan Baby is a much slower-paced film than most of Fulci’s repertoire, not quite giallo-esque but certainly better situated in that realm than his work on The House By the Cemetery. Fulci is careful to craft a well-defined family out of the Hackers, including scenes where George gets carried away with his obsessive work rather than caring for his kids or his wife Emily (Laura Lenzi) or moments of flirtation between Emily and her co-worker Luke (Carlo De Mejo); these help to punctuate the distance between the Hacker parents and their children Susie and Tommy (Giovanni Frezza – yes, he’s back from The House By the Cemetary), who are so often with their au pair Jamie Lee (Cinzia de Ponti) that they rarely get to see their mom and dad.
That parental separation lies at the heart of Manhattan Baby, and it’s telling that the film begins and ends with Susie asking her mother “Were you worried?” While the film’s overt plot lines involve the ancient evils of a talisman and the tacit warnings that come from disturbing ancient graves, its most prominent themes involve the children – who, with no one to listen or believe them, turn to the promises of the evil as entertainment: traveling to distant deserts, playing with scorpions, and tormenting their babysitter by stuffing her in a wall.
While Fulci’s film (aided by Briganti’s much more structured narrative plotting) works with its characters first and foremost, it also leaves out a lot of the elements that make his films exciting. The evil talisman allows a lot of supernatural things to occur in the Manhattan apartment, like a deconstructing elevator or a multitude of snakes invading the home; but Fulci never explores these ideas to their fullest potential, instead ditching extreme violence for off-screen deaths like Luke’s demise in the desert. Many will find Manhattan Baby plodding despite its 90-minute runtime.
Still, it has its impressive moments, including a good score from Fabio Frizzi and some excellent effects work in key moments (the death of an explorer falling into a pit of spikes is particularly well-done). Fans of Italian horror will find a lot of familiar moments in the film, and Fulci’s direction is coherent in a way some of his other movies lack. Manhattan Baby will be a tough recommendation for those who aren’t a fan of the slower-paced Italian horror films, but for those that can appreciate subtlety, Fulci’s film harnesses the power of evil just like its iconic pendant with a surprisingly nuanced plot.
Click page 2 for the Blu-Ray review.