Tulpa (2012)

First published by Little White Lies

[note that this is a review of the version of the film which premièred at FrightFest 2012, for its first and only screening; since then, the film has been released in a very different cut]

Remember Giallo, Dario Argento’s bumbling love letter to the genre that made his name? At the Film4 Frightfest 2009, it was enjoyed (by LWLies and a theatreful of guffawing festival goers) as a genuinely hilarious piece of comic self-parody – although, incredibly, Argento himself seemed not to have been in on his film’s joke (even if lead actor Adrien Brody certainly was).

Now Federico (Shadow) Zampaglione’s Tulpa poses a similar problem. From the start, it fixes itself firmly in the classic giallo tradition, with a sadistically inventive black-gloved killer, a heroine in peril, kinky eroticism, a who-doin’-it plot, occult shadings, not to mention (beautiful) colour-coded lighting, modernist sets and jazzy sounds – but at the same time its random shifts from subtitled Italian to badly dubbed English, its tin-ear show-and-tell dialogue (with wooden delivery), its wild narrative leaps and its all-round cheesiness suggest that this is less homage than pastiche, exaggerating all the genre’s most risible aspects to dizzying depths of silliness.

Accordingly, Tulpa brought the house down at its world premiere last night, as its increasingly absurd lines were accompanied by unrestrained giggling fits from FrightFesters. Giallo is a genre built upon disorienting tensions, but here the only tension consisted in trying to determine the filmmaker’s (inevitably masked) intentions. On the one hand, if the film is a deliberate comic parody, then it suffers a similar fate to Hobo With a Shotgun, doing such a convincing impression of a certain kind of bad movie that it ends up very close to just being that bad movie. Yet even as we laugh at the film that Tulpa pretends to be, we are not really laughing with the film that Tulpa actually is. At least it could be said that we are still laughing, but on this reading, irony is the film’s true killer, lurking in the shadows and hacking its way through the film’s generic form, with messy results.

On the other hand, the apparent bewilderment of the film’s cast and crew when confronted with the audience’s riotous response points, perhaps, to an even worse conclusion: that Tulpa is simply, unironically, an awful, awful film. There is already a rumour that, on the basis of last night’s screening, Zampaglione is planning extensive re-edits – but it might be better just to rebrand Tulpa a so-bad-it’s-good flick for the midnight crowd, and let it slowly build a (thematically appropriate, as it happens) cult status.

© Anton Bitel