Friday, May 17, 2013

Get Old, Get Evil, with PHANTOM OF DEATH

Phantom of Death (1988)
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Rating: 4.5 / 10
Seen via: Vidmark VHS

Phantom of Death sports one of the most hideous covers on my shelf of tapes. There's Michael York, front and center, pulling an Animorphs-style transformation into ... Donald Pleasence? That's what the names above the portraits seem to suggest, anyway. Then below there's a woman falling through glass, which makes me think this movie wants me to associate it with Suspiria. The title offers no insight into what the hell is happening in this film, even in its native Italian: Un Delitto Poco Comune, or "An Unusual Crime" (according to Google Translate). Due to video store stickers that obscured a large portion of the back of the box, I wasn't aware that this was the work of Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, House on the Edge of the Park) until after buying it and looking it up online. That gave me some hope that at the very least this would be an utter sleaze-fest. For a little while anyway, it certainly seems to go that direction.

Robert Dominici (Michael York) is a renowned pianist with a failing marriage. After his wife is killed on her way back from a tryst, Inspector Datti (Donald Pleasance) vows to track the murderer down. Things become personal when the killer calls up Datti and taunts him, threatening his daughter. Meanwhile, as the killings continue they seem to point toward Robert... is this an elaborate setup? Based on the plot and the way these murders are presented, you might think you're about to watch a giallo. But Deodato was always more comfortable with gritty crime, cannibals, and other less stylish forms of trash, and the film soon becomes something else entirely.

Also, since this is Ruggero Deodato, expect gushing rivers of blood.
The big twist (that isn't really a twist, since it occurs only after the first act has wrapped up), is that Robert has a rare form of adult progeria, causing him to age rapidly and fall into violent rages. As he struggles to suppress his new urge to kill, he's also forced to navigate the relationship he's fallen into with a woman named Helene (Edwige Fenech), who was seemingly waiting for his wife to die so she could jump in and take her place. A fair amount of the story has Robert coming to terms with his impending death and accelerated aging, which pushes him even further into madness. There's some pretty fun stuff here, such as Robert's trip to a children's clinic, which I was not at all prepared for - especially when this little guy turned around and faced the camera:

What works does so in large part because of Deodato's willingness to acknowledge that this is a slasher rather than a drama. Michael York may not have gotten the memo, however, and takes even the most outlandish material seriously. He gives it 100%, even when the script feeds him a monologue in which he threatens to kill all the old and young people in the world so he won't be reminded of his lost youth OR his newly acquired age. Donald Pleasance grounds the film as he stoically gathers information and pieces together evidence, but even he's not exempt from a few overblown scenes. The most notable is when a taunting phone call drives him over the edge and causes him to run out into the street and throw a fit, screaming "You fucking bastard! I'll kill you!" at the sky. I was also happy to see Edwige Fenech pop up, although the late 80's were not as kind to her as the 70's. No fault of hers, really - giallo fashion was just way more stylish than the big hair and shoulder pads in this film could ever hope to be.

"My BRAIN is ROTTING!" (Actual dialogue.)
While Phantom of Death certainly has a few stylistic echoes from the giallo era (note the black gloves on York above), it's too bad that it never really takes advantage of them. The giallo was effectively dead in the late 80's, so perhaps Deodato didn't want to seem as though he was clinging to old trends. I doubt this was the case though. Nothing in this movie seems that skillfully assembled - the early giallo-style kills seem thrown in at random, the main plot doesn't really begin until the second act, and there's some really questionable use of a flash forward that's confusing and misleading. I'm guessing Deodato was just borrowing stylistic elements without thinking too much about the overall result.

The Good:

The premise is pretty interesting, and the film's willingness to handle it as an outrageous slasher was definitely the right way to go.

The Bad:

Sometimes there's just too much acting from Michael York. It's a shame that Edwige Fenech is underutilized.

...the Hell?

I'm pretty sure progeria doesn't turn you into a psychopath. I mean, I hope it doesn't...

The Verdict

Despite the fact that the audio on the tape was seriously damaged and I had to listen to buzzing throughout the entire film, I was interested enough to finish it. This is not a great film, nor one that I'd recommend, but it never feels repetitive and stays entertaining for most of its runtime. This would fit perfectly in a double feature with Lamberto Bava's Delerium if you're looking for a night of trashy Italian post-giallo slashers filled to the brim with overacting.

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