Phantom of Death

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

"I knew I should have kept that
portrait in a safety deposit box.
We enjoyed our outing into the "respectable actors in schlock horror" genre (Alone in the Dark) so much that we decided to try it again. Somehow two fairly respectable actors, Michael York and Donald Pleasence (who was also in Alone), got roped into starring in this incompetent Italian thriller. Directed by Ruggero Deodato, better known for his atrocity films like Cannibal Holocaust, Phantom of Death is light on gore and horror scenes, but heavy on inept plot developments and character development.

Robert Dominici (York) is a concert pianist who discovers that he has a degenerative genetic condition which causes him to start aging rapidly. This disease also causes him to go rather mad, so he begins carving up a random group of people who displease him. This being a horror film, however, you can be assured that most of these people will be beautiful women. The first to die is the doctor who gave him the news (thereby keeping the disease a secret), second is his unfaithful girlfriend, and so forth. All the while, he strings along yet another woman, Helene (Edwige Fenech), by telling her (via phone) that he is traveling abroad, when he is really in town, killing people off and looking more and more like George Burns every day.

Macaulay Culkin today.
Hot on the killer's trail is Inspector Datti (Pleasence). Datti figures out pretty quickly that Dominici is probably the culprit, but is confounded by evidence and descriptions of the killer which suggest that a much older man is responsible. Dominici is also able to avoid police scrutiny by simply not answering his front door whenever Datti comes by. Why don't other criminals ever think of that? The film takes a strange turn by implying that Dominici might not be the killer by turning York's back to the camera whenever he phones Datti -- and he does that a lot, probably in an attempt to establish the killer-detective rapport that works so well in so many other crime stories. Unfortunately, it never quite clicks here. Datti catches on to the killer's identity so quickly that there's never any time for him to relate to Dominici the killer, because he already has a preconceived notion of Dominici the famous pianist. In addition, Pleasence spends a lot of time reprising his Dr. Loomis role by telling everyone within earshot how evil Dominici is. Substitute the name "Michael" for "Dominici" in Pleasence's dialogue and you'd swear you were listening to lost scenes from a Halloween flick.

Our overactive imaginations take this a step further, and we conjure up images of a codgery Pleasence on the set:

Pleasence: Michael... he's loose, and he's evil! He has dead eyes! Dead eyes!

Assistant Director: Mister Pleasence, this isn't a Halloween film! You're on the set of Phantom of Death!

Pleasence: I know that, you idiot! I'm talking about Michael York!

But that's just a little something we thought up to amuse ourselves while waiting for this film to end.

CBS gets really desperate and puts
Michael York in the Big Brother house.
Phantom of Death is incompetent in so many ways that, after a point, one is tempted to simply reject its existence. The first part of the film tries to be a murder mystery, but then we find for certain that Dominici is the killer. Plot threads are introduced, like Dominici's taunts and threats against Datti's daughter, or the kendo lessons that Dominici is taking, and are then dropped because somebody forgot about them. The version of the film that we found claimed to be uncut, and there were some quite graphic blood spurts from hapless victims, but it still doesn't make sense.

The final half of the film is devoted to the pointless task of trying to turn Dominici into a tragic figure -- despite the fact that he is tormenting Datti and rather obviously enjoying it. Whatever this film is trying to communicate, it never really sticks in your head, except perhaps for the fact that York's character is getting old and his makeup is becoming less convincing. Or perhaps our attention is supposed to be focused on the ridiculous lengths to which the filmmakers must go to find female victims for Dominici. Our favorite in this latter category has to be the only female police officer in all of Italy, who is left in the car while the other officers search a park for the killer. Needless to say, the second the other officers are out earshot, Dominici shoves a piece of metal through her neck.

Donald Pleasence and others
watch his self-respect fly away.
The only real amusement to be gleaned here is from the film's dialogue. The movie was shot in English, but the Italian actors are all obviously dubbed. Fenech goes from her actual voice to being dubbed and back several times, often within one scene. And some of the dubbed dialogue suggests that the line readings were done in a hurry. Datti asks one suspect, "Do you [have an alibi]?" "No," replies the suspect, "But the killer certainly does!" Would you like to keep reading? Sure, but close your eyes!

You might also get a bit of a chuckle after one of Datti's phone conversations with Dominici. Dominici makes it plain that he has concealed himself somewhere in a nearby crowd, and all Datti can do is run outside to yell "BASTARD!" Someone get that man an Oscar!

If you're looking for some melodramatic Italian horror dripped with European atmosphere, go find something by Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento. Phantom of Death may just take a few years off your life.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 7/11/2000

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