Tulpa (2012)

First published by VODzilla.co

Lisa Boeri (Claudia Gerini) leads a double life.

Bilingual and bisexual, by day she is a highly efficient executive in the cutthroat world of energy commodities. By night she frequents a private members’ club (named Tulpa) where, under the influence of hallucinogens, she indulges her desires with a like-minded set of polyamorous strangers. Despite the flirtatious advances of her boss Roccaforte (Michele Placido), Lisa is careful never to mix business and pleasure, and keeps her nocturnal activities a painstakingly repressed secret – until, that is, positions in her workplace begin to get slashed, even as her sexual partners from the club start being brutally murdered, one by one. Lisa’s two worlds are set to collide.

Federico Zampaglione’s Tulpa has its own double life. Its world première at FrightFest 2012 has become legendary amongst those who attended as a riotously funny and deeply uncomfortable crowd experience. For what began as a loving resurrection of all the elements that would come to define the lurid Italian thrillers of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties (sensationalism, eroticism, baroque murder set pieces, colour coding, canted angles, restricted POV shots, a black-gloved killer, Bava-esque close-ups on eyes, a jazzy concrète soundtrack) quickly degenerated into a hilarious pastiche of the giallo genre’s most absurd features (tin-ear dialogue, terrible dubbing, wooden performances, incoherent plotting). As giggling rippled infectiously through the FrightFest audience, everyone seemed in on the joke – apart, that is, from the cast and crew members in attendance, some of whom, according to witnesses, were reduced to tears by their film’s mirthful reception. The post-screening Q&A was hastily called off, and that version of the film, rebranded a ‘work in progress’, was never shown anywhere again, despite its real potential to become a cult classic.

A little over a month after the FrightFest debacle, a very different cut of the film, reworked by Zampaglione with help from Julian Richards (The Last Horror Movie), was revealed at the Sitges International Film Festival – and that version has finally become available in the UK. The English dubbing, though still present and correct as a sly meta-comment on the way that gialli were typically targeted (in English) at an international market (“This fucking globalisation,” Roccaforte complains to Lisa after a meeting, “Every time I have to speak English I get a headache”), is now unobtrusively naturalistic, in contrast with the exaggeratedly stilted and poorly synched English dialogue in the film’s earlier cut (which, to be fair, seemed a very accurate parody of much real giallo dubbing). Characters have been stripped down (and not just in the nude scenes!), with Lisa’s bookselling friend Giovanna (Michela Cescon) in particular pushed far more into the background.

In revisiting not just giallo, but also his own film, Zampaglione has created a product of compromise, caught, like its heroine, in a state of intermediacy. For Tulpa is neither an uproarious spoof of the genre, like say Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy’s The Editor (2014) or – arguably – Dario Argento’s Giallo (2009), nor is it an artfully transcendent elevation of the genre, like Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet’s Amer (2009) and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) or Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Rather, it sits somewhere in the middle, content for the most part lovingly to reconstruct the tropes of giallo without really taking them anywhere new.

Like Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud’s Red Nights (2009), Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes (2010) and Julien Magnat’s Faces in the Crowd (2011), Tulpa is an efficiently stylised erotic whodunnit that evokes and embodies the spirit of giallo in much the same way that Lisa conjures a murderous psych(ot)ic entity (the tulpa of the title, a reification of the metaphysical in Tibetan Buddhism). You can argue over whether Zampaglione’s film is the real deal, or just a phantom – but there is not much that is truly ‘neo-‘ in this oldschool neo-giallo. Better perhaps just to revel in Zampaglione and Andrea Moscianesca’s masterful Goblin-esque score, or to marvel at the truly otherworldly performance of Nuot Arquint (who also featured in Zampaglione’s 2009 feature Shadow) as the sex club’s owner cum cultic hierophant.

Summary: Musician Zampaglione replays his own neo-giallo in a more serious, if somehow less entertaining, key.

© Anton Bitel