Suave surgeon George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel) runs an exclusive clinic in sunny San Francisco. He is married to the wealthy, yet shrill and sickly Susan (Marisa Mell) but having an affair with chic fashion photographer Jane (Elsa Martinelli). When Susan dies unexpectedly from an asthma attack, George becomes the sole beneficiary of a two million dollar insurance policy that immediately leads the police to suspect foul play. An anonymous phone leads George and Jane to a swinging nightclub called The Roaring Twenties and an astonishing encounter with gorgeous stripper Monica Weston (Marisa Mell again), a dead ringer for his late wife except she is a blonde bombshell with green eyes while Susan was a brunette with dark brown eyes. George is suitably intoxicated to be drawn into a lusty liaison with this dishy doppelganger, but when the police question Monica she admits she was hired to pose as Susan. The dead woman’s body is exhumed and bears traces of poison, but is George responsible or is he the victim of an elaborate mind game?
Known in Italian as Una sull’altra, translated as One on Top of the Other but sold in most territories under the scandal-mongering sobriquet of Perversion Story, this is a cracking giallo by any name. Much as he would later evoke our darkest nightmares in his zombie movies, the stylish direction by Lucio Fulci transports viewers into an incredibly glam, Swinging Sixties parallel universe with the San Francisco scenery and sumptuous interiors shot in split screen, through coloured gauze or lit with wild colours. The central idea of a wife leading an erotic double life echoes Double Face (1969), a vastly inferior thriller Fulci co-wrote for Riccardo Freda, but while Perversion Story upholds the genre’s usual preoccupation with devious, promiscuous and/or neurotic women, Fulci forgoes the misogyny that characterises his more famous work.
Though slow-moving compared to later slash-happy giallo thrillers, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fulci spins a complex, expertly crafted mystery that sucks viewers like a whirlpool. A cynical tale where surface beauty masks the notion of characters caught like bugs in a web of intrigue. Ever the provocateur, Fulci gives us gory close-ups on a rotting corpse and can’t resist packing as much crowd-pleasing nudity as the story can stand: from kinky photo shoots to that amazing, wet dream nightclub where beautiful semi-naked go-go dancers shimmy atop podiums and swings. Marisa Mell makes a scorching intro, straddling a gold motorcycle as she strips off her leopard-skin gear and winds up wearing nothing but black patterned stickers over her naughty bits. Crikey…
It is one of the sexiest of all gialli, thanks to Fulci’s skilful handling of some very steamy and psychologically warped love scenes (including a memorable quasi-lesbian tryst between Elsa Martinelli and Marisa Mell just to fuel those fan boy fantasies) and Mell’s immensely assured, languidly seductive turn. Outside of Danger: Diabolik (1968) this rates as her finest hour. She gets a rare acting workout alongside handsome Jean Sorel (suitably haunted with his piercing blue eyes) and the ever-watchable Elsa Martinelli who balanced a Hollywood career in frothy fair like Hatari! (1962) with more memorable turns in arty horrors like this and Roger Vadim’s excellent Blood and Roses (1960).
Veteran character actor John Ireland plays the police detective who struggles to piece this puzzle together and lookout for Faith Domergue - star of This Island Earth (1955) - in a minor role and a young Bobby Rhodes - from Demons (1985) - as a friendly prison guard. After gliding through an hour and ten minutes of stylish sleaze, the last third is genuinely gripping and unexpectedly poignant, as prison guards comfort George while he waits on death row and a radio announcer narrates the race against time to clear his name. Finger-snapping jazz score by Riz Ortolani.
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.