In 2002, we had a very dry year in New Jersey, but in 2003 Nature overcompensated for the drought. We had an exceedingly wet spring, and everything stayed moist and yucky even after the perpetual rains came to an end.
Unfortunately, I live in a house which is prone to mildew at the best of times, and this year it spread to my video collection. While I devoted my time to my ever-growing DVD collection, rot had set in to my VHS library. I discovered the infection when I went to look up a movie I hadn't seen in a few years, and it didn't take me long to realize that the problem had spread far out of control. I threw away any tape that had even the first trace of the infection; as a result, I found myself discarding some 400 tapes. As you may have already guessed, the mold had a particular taste for movies I could not replace easily.
I have resigned myself to the loss of the tapes, and to the fact that I will probably lose a good deal more in spite of the new precautions I've taken. It's not that important... after all, my collection was beginning to take up more room than I could afford to give it, to the point where if I were to watch them all again on my current schedule, it would take me almost to retirement age to finish. Still, there was a handful I was very upset about losing. A glance at some of the titles will probably explain their importance to me, at least to those who share my taste in cinema (scary thought): Santa Sangre. The Exterminating Angel. Dersu Uzala. War of the Gargantuas. The Keep. From Hell It Came.
And then, there was an obscure Italian thriller I found very difficult to part with. I was a little surprised at myself: I hadn't remembered being particularly fond of the movie. But when I was faced with its loss, I found myself inexplicably anxious to see it again. I had intended for several years to review the film, but I'd never actually got around to it. The movie was Un Delitto poco comune, a.k.a. Phantom of Death, directed by Ruggero (Cannibal Holocaust) Deodato.
This week, a surprisingly short time after losing the original, I found another copy in a used bin.
Fate has been kind to me this time, so I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to finally write the review I'd been planning for so long. It's not that the movie is particularly good -- it's just that by comparison to other films of its genre and its time, it's more interesting and more emotionally involving. Though its plot is the usual giallo nonsense, and there's more than enough stupidity to go around, there are occasional flashes of intelligence in the screenplay, and the execution of the film is solid enough that it makes up (at least a little) for the film's basic lack of logic.
Michael York plays a 35-year-old concert pianist named Robert Dominici, who, as the film opens, is at the height of his career. We first see him in the middle of a recital, which is being captured on film. In the movie we're watching, however, his performance is interrupted by a sinister montage: we see a masked figure practicing martial arts with a wicked-looking sword; next, we see a woman in a lab coat peering intently at something in a microscope; then we see the same woman being confronted by someone unseen in her house; finally, we see the woman having her throat torn open with an ornamental sword. The unseen attacker carries of a set of bloodied file folders... and before long we're back to Robert's recital in time for the big finish.
After Robert's stunning success, the pianist's girlfriend Susanna decides it's the ideal moment to confess her doubts about their future. Leaving him upset, she runs off to sleep with his friend David at his home many miles away.
At the reception following the recital, a young girl catches up with her father, who has missed the concert. It turns out he had a very good reason: he's police Inspector Datti (Donald Pleasence), and he's just come from the scene of the young doctor's murder. No one seems to have any idea why the woman should have been butchered. Perhaps, thinks Datti later on, someone at the Paris medical conference she was about to participate in might have some idea. Her diary does mention a particular name -- "Robert Hutchinson Gilford" -- in connection with the conference, but a quick investigation proves that no Dr. Robert H. Gilford is enrolled for the event.
Days go by as Datti puts together the few leads he has to go on. A witness says she thought she saw a man about 30 year old leaving the doctor's apartment on the evening of the murder, but she seems unable to give a more detailed description. In the meantime, Robert's martial arts practices (yes, he was the guy in the mask during the opening montage) aren't going very well. His concentration is off, and he ends up being beaten by his sparring partner -- whom we will discover later is none other than David.
But David has been steadily losing a different struggle: Susanna has decided she really loves Robert and has decided to go back to him. She calls Robert from the train station as she's about to leave to come back to him. Descending from the train, she finds the platform deserted. Nervously, she approaches the station door, only to see a shadow rise behind the glass... but it's a false alarm; it's only the director, Ruggero Deodato, in the obligatory post-Hitchcock cameo. Deodato is picked up by a girl on a motorcycle, and Susanna is left all alone in the empty station.
Alone... except for the man in the shadows with the sword.
Ten years ago, the first time I saw the geyser of blood that erupts from the poor girl's neck in this scene, I had to turn off the video and leave the room for a few minutes. It's not as though I hadn't seen a good deal of gore in films by that time in my life, including some by Deodato himself; and it's not as though I didn't expect some graphic violence from the man who made Cannibal Holocaust. The gore in the scene isn't even particularly realistic: it seems as though the poor girl's blood pressure must have been greater than that of a fire hose, considering the force and distance of the spray. Rather, it's the tone of the attack -- the suddenness, the exaggerated violence of it -- which is such a contrast to the rest of the film so far that it came as a total shock.
Deodato has made movies from incredibly stupid scripts (including some by Manino and Clerici, who wrote this one), but he does not usually make stupid movies. He is really a ferociously intelligent technician, though his source material may be irredeemably goofy. From the gritty realism of Cannibal Holocaust to the cold, highly glossy surfaces of La Casa Sperduto nel Parco/House on the Edge of the Park, Deodato knows exactly how to achieve the effect he wants. In the case of those two films in particular, his incredible technical skill turned what should have been comically excessive failures into two of the most poisonous, most disturbing films Italy's commercial film industry has ever produced. Phantom of Death doesn't aspire to the nauseating extremes of either of those two movies, but with this murder scene Deodato announces that he will be pulling no punches.
Inspector Datti takes Robert's statement after Susanna's body is discovered. Robert certainly seems to be grief-stricken over the girl's death. Suspicion immediately falls on David, but David seems too young to match the description provided by the witness of the doctor's assassin. It's not clear how the police have connected the two murders -- perhaps the use of a sword is the key -- but it's in the script, so we'll go with it. Anyway, the police have no real evidence against David, so they let him go. Later on, in David's subsequent martial arts practice, his master praises his intelligent fighting style, but cautions him -- in a moment that has PLOT POINT!! written all over it -- against any adversary who might see through his strategy.
David then disappears from the movie entirely. Go figure.
But I'm getting ahead of myself: Robert is sitting brooding at home; the ominous music on the soundtrack foreshadows the ring of the doorbell. Robert's ex-girlfriend Hélène is at the door. Maybe it's just my standards slipping, or maybe I've seen too many inane "romantic interludes" in Italian horror films that bore no relation to real life, but it struck me that the scene between Robert and Hélène was incredibly well-written for a movie like this. I have to admit, I've been afraid to rewind and watch the scene again, for fear of being disillusioned. Anyway: Hélène has come to console him after his apparent bereavement, and the old sparks immediately begin to fly. However, Robert is still too upset over something -- apparently his recent loss -- to dare to try to rekindle the old romance.
I say "apparently" because up until this point, the film has made a half-hearted attempt to conceal the killer's identity... as though this were to be a real mystery instead of a stalk-and-slash film. But naturally, we've all seen the video box; and besides, the real point of the film isn't difficult to guess. Robert's real agony isn't over the death of his girlfriend. It's because of his concealed pain that he's killed her (and the doctor, as well). The precise nature of his torment hasn't yet been revealed, but it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone to learn that Robert is the "mysterious" assassin.
A month has gone by since the murder of Susanna. Inspector Datti receives a taunting phone call from the killer, whose identity is still being "cleverly concealed" from us. Later, a drunken Robert shows up at Hélène's house. He says he hadn't wanted to come, but with his resolve weakened by alcohol, he did what his heart told him to do. Soon the two of them are in bed...
In the morning, Hélène finds a single flower and a note: Robert has gone away for a long trip. Neither of them realize that he's left Hélène a present she'll be unwrapping in about nine months.
Robert has gone off to Venice to visit his mother. While he's there, it becomes evident that his health is beginning to fail. We are informed rather abruptly that he's been there for two months, during which time he hasn't touched the piano. His mother assumes (as everybody else does) that he's still broken up over the murder. She also points out that the tragedy seems to have changed him... made him look older, more mature.
The obviously ailing Robert is washing up in a public restroom; when he goes to comb his hair, large hanks of it come off in the comb. A balding man at the sink next to him tries to offer his sympathy, and Robert reacts with astonishing fury: he beats the man's head against the wall and leaves him unconscious.
Now we have a flashback to the real source of all the trouble. Robert had been diagnosed as suffering from late-onset progeria -- also known as Hutchinson Gilford syndrome -- a rare genetic condition that causes a person to age with unnatural speed. Though he is still a young man, now that the condition has become active he will be dead of old age in only a few months. Unable to deal with this revelation, Robert had impulsively killed the doctor (who, by sheer unlikely coincidence, was the only person involved in the diagnosis) and stolen her files (which by another unlikely coincidence are the only copies of the lab reports).
Robert enters a hospital, evidently anonymously, where his condition is confirmed. He now looks like a man in his late 50's. Wandering the streets one day, he catches sight of a child in a swing... a child with progeria. He is horrified by the wrinkled face, that stares with ancient, rheumy eyes from atop the tiny body.
And then, he learns that Hélène is pregnant with his child.
Shortly thereafter, Hélène is attacked while leaving her office. The knife-wielding assailant is chased away at the last moment, but Hélène has samples of his skin trapped under her fingernails. Inspector Datti, to his credit, immediately realizes Robert had to have been involved in the crime, and sets up a cordon around the Dominici home. Robert is trapped inside, hiding (amazing how no one thinks to actually go into the house, especially considering that Robert doesn't do a very good job of concealing himself!).
Datti is nonplussed when Hélène's Identikit reconstruction of the attacker's appearance looks so unlike Robert. He assumes that she must be protecting him, consciously or unconsciously. But then the tissue samples come back from analysis: the attacker was unquestionably a man in his 50's. Datti is forced to recall the surveillance from Robert's house. Robert calls Datti (from his home -- the moron!) and taunts him over his inconsistent public descriptions of the wanted man. Datti, who is also a moron, is unable to trace the call.
Robert sneaks back to Venice in time for a carnival, where he hides his appearance behind a Phantom of the Opera getup (hence the American video title). He goes to visit the first woman he ever slept with, who is now a hooker. She's both amused and repelled when the (apparently) 60-year-old man tells her that he lost his virginity to her when he was in his 20s. She's even more amused and sickened when he tries to kiss her. Michael York is an old pro, so we really get a sense of his despair at his lost youth -- most especially because he alone has lost it, while everyone he knew from his former life dismisses him with contempt... because he's old, and therefore useless to them. So we can almost begin to sympathize with him when he impales the girl on the pointed finial of a lamp.
Robert than goes to see an old male friend of his, who is now a priest. Two boys dressed as clowns slip out of the church with curious glances... Robert tells the priest that he has killed, and asks for his absolution. Before the priest can finish protesting, Robert asks him is he doesn't recognize him. The priest is doubly horrified when he recognizes Robert. He pleads with Robert to accept his condition and find solace in a merciful God. Robert doesn't want God's mercy: "Your God has made me rot outside and inside!" he cries. What he wants even more than God's absolution is the forgiveness and comfort of his old friend.
At this point I actually found myself thinking of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and wondering if the Venetian settings could possibly have been a coincidence... after all, Mann's novella had dealt with an aging artist, Aschenbach, who loses his control and his moral sense when he abandons himself to the sensuality he's always rejected; Robert, by comparison, descends from the absolute control of his artistic and martial arts disciplines to a nihilistic frenzy, as he loses himself in despair over the things he's lost: youth; beauty; the pleasure of the senses... Aschenbach's degradation leads to his death, while in Robert's case, it's the knowledge of his impending death that drives him from one extreme to the other. Or something. And then, naturally, I catch myself comparing an Italian thriller screenplay with a masterwork by Thomas Mann, and I want to echo Robert's cry about rotting outside and inside.
Returning to his home, Robert vows he'll kill anyone and everyone: the young, because they have the hope and vitality that have been taken away from him, and the old because they've had the chance to live out their natural lifespans. He's particularly interested in catching up with Hélène before she has a chance to give birth to the child that may carry his curse. In the meantime, he establishes himself as a harmless old man by hanging out in a local park and playing chess with the regulars. In the even meaner time, he takes to calling Inspector Datti and taunting him with more chances to find him. Robert invites the police to come and meet him in the park, and (in the film's low point for believability) takes advantage of his changed, aged appearance to sneak up on a policewoman and cut her throat.
This is an ridiculous bit of bungling by the police; but Pleasence, another old pro, makes the situation a bit more credible through his portrayal of Datti. Pleasence's Inspector is a dithering fool... a good-hearted but utterly incapable policeman. The role was probably meant to be played straight, but Pleasence has the insight to make his character seem like a bumbler from the outset.
Datti rounds up everyone who was on the scene... excluding the kids and the very old men. By this time, Robert looks about 70, so he's among the people who are sent home. Robert then calls Datti from the café across the street and taunts him yet again. After this, Datti pitches a public tantrum and decides to resign.
Not that Robert is finished with him...
Actually, from this point on the film runs out of steam rather rapidly. Like Robert. You can probably imagine what the last few scenes of the movie are like; in fact, you'll probably imagine a better ending than the one we get. At least we don't get a huge, explosive ending, where Robert calls up unexpected reserves of strength and becomes an unstoppable killer. No; what we do get is probably the only ending we could have expected... but it's still something of an anticlimax.
In the end, Phantom of Death tells us nothing in particular about the human condition, other than that it's good to live while you have the opportunity. Early on, it tries to set itself up as a mystery... and it fails. It sets up certain plot threads and expectations, and then forgets them. But while it's playing, as long as you don't stop to think about it very carefully, it's fairly engaging; and overall, it's a well-photographed, involving movie. I admire its attempt (note I say attempt) to establish an unusually slow pace, especially since I like slowly-paced movies best of all. However, the leisurely unfolding of the plot is cancelled out by the frequent fast-forwards of one, two, four months... the changing time frame is enough to make you seasick. The alternative title Off Balance applies as much to the structure of the film as to the story.
Still, when you consider that the screenplay was adapted from the same source as Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper, you really have to concede that in spite of the excessive, typically misogynistic gore, Deodato's made one of the more humane Italian slasher films. Though the central conceit is a little too outlandish to be as clever as the movie thinks it is, and far too much of the action depends on people doing unreaonably stupid things (as usual), the movie has made a genuine attempt to establish its characters and get us to feel something for them. Most of its success can be attributed to the commitment of the actors, in particular Michael York; but there's at least one scene -- rare in the giallo repertoire -- where you actually hear the characters speaking to each other intelligently, and saying things they might say in a movie that didn't have a body count.