Appellate Judge Tom Becker owns an acre of dread.
Shock-Headed Peter meets the Fauna Lovers.
Plot of Fear takes that staple of '70s Italian cinema, the giallo, adds a few elements of that other '70s staple, the police procedural (poliziotteschi), ramps everything up with a healthy dose of sleaze, and gives the viewer…one confused viewing experience. It's not a bad film, it's not an unenjoyable film, it's just a film with ambitions that seem beyond its makers.
There's a killer loose, one who seems to be preying on people connected with a group of animal enthusiasts, the Fauna Lovers. Whenever the killer strikes, a calling card is left behind: an illustration from a children's book, Shock-Headed Peter. The book—it's real, by the way—was written by someone named Hoffman; ironically, the Fauna Lovers used to meet at an estate owned by a man named…Hoffman!
Detective Lomenzo (Michele Placido, Big Business) is on the case, but he's having trouble making sense of things. Hindering him is the discovery that the files from an earlier investigation of the Fauna Lovers has gone missing, and the detective on that case has disappeared.
Lomenzo meets Jeanne (Corinne Clery, The Story of O), a beautiful model, and starts sleeping with her. A year prior, Jeanne had attended a party at the Hoffman estate and fills Lomenzo in on the sordid details—it seems that lions and tigers aren't the only kind of fauna that appeal to these "lovers."
Will a trip to the Hoffman estate help Lomenzo see things more clearly—or is this Plot of Fear even more convoluted than he realizes?
"Convoluted" is a pretty apt term for Plot of Fear. There are so many elements here that should make this a first-rate Eurosleaze thriller, but director Paolo Cavara (Black Belly of the Tarantula), and writers Bernardino Zapponi (Deep Red) and Enrico Oldoini (Stay as You Are), just don't pull it all together in a satisfying or cohesive way. That the film doesn't adhere strictly to the conventions of any one, particular genre makes it interesting, but the messy and muddled construction make it less a fascinating opus than an oddball curio.
The problems begin right out of the gate with the first murder, which is lurid and sleazy, as it should be—but the scene cuts without showing the killer leaving the Shock-Headed Peter card. It's there—the police talk about it later. Since it's such an integral part of the story, and the device that ties the murders together, leaving it out at the beginning makes the whole business seem arbitrary. The writers also miss the boat by not correlating the murders to the mayhem in the book, which features children being burned to death, dismembered, and suffering other terrible fates.
Arbitrary is also an apt description of how Lomenzo happens upon clues and puts the whole thing together. He meets people connected to the case in apparently random ways—Jeanne, for instance. After she and Lomenzo begin their relationship, she provides information about the party at the Hoffman estate, and it seems a huge coincidence that she happens to be a key player in the case her lover is investigating. If there's a deeper or more sinister explanation, the film doesn't provide it.
Sometimes, happenstance is on Lomenzo's side: at one point, he's able to track down a suspect because the date just happens to be the anniversary of someone's death, and Lomenzo just happens to deduce that the person he's looking for will just happen to be visiting the cemetery on that day.
Cavara and company throw out tons of side-story business and red herrings; murder victims are introduced and dispatched so quickly, they barely make an impression. The result is a film that seems scattershot and full of contrivances.
Which isn't to say it's a bad film; far from it. If you can get past the dodgy plot devices, there's a lot fun to be had here.
While they're not used to full advantage, the creepy Shock-Headed Peter illustrations are an intriguing touch, grotesqueries that make Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies seem like a Peanuts cartoon.
The story is loony enough to be entertaining, so long as there's a huge suspension of disbelief. It's also a good looking film, with some striking visuals, though it lacks the over-the-top imagery of many other gialli.
The film is also well cast. Placido brings a lot of humor to his role of Lomenzo, and Clery is not only beautiful, but nicely inscrutable as Jeanne. International films often cast American "name" actors to help attract audiences, and here we get Tom Skerrit (Alien) in a negligible role as the chief of detectives and Eli Wallach (The Ghost Writer) in a more substantial one as a shady, influential private investigator. There's a good amount of comedy infused with the sordid goings on, as well.
And there's lots of sex. Lots of sex. Placido gets to make love with two beautiful women (at different times). Another woman drops her top, just to make a point. A nurse goes into her employer's bathroom and masturbates…just because.
The highlight, though, is the flashback to the orgy at Villa Hoffman. The guests play (fully clothed) sex games while watching an animated porn film by erotic artist Gibba. It's a crucial scene, plot-wise, and so overflowing with sleaze that it almost makes up for some of the film's miscues.
I had seen Plot of Fear before, and thought that maybe the many Plot-holes of Fear were due to an inferior, cut version of the film. I was looking forward to the Raro release, particularly since it boasted a longer cut at 102 minutes. While I believe Raro's cut is complete, it's 95 minutes, not 102, as it states on the box.
Raro turns out a typically fine disc for this fairly obscure Italian thriller. The transfer is quite nice, clear and crisp looking. Audio is available in a pair of mono tracks: the Italian is the better bet, a full, solid track, while the English dub sounds a bit tinny. For supplements, there are interviews with writer Oldoini and actor Placido, as well as with Pietro Cavara, the director's son. There's also an essay by Chris Alexander, editor of Fangoria, which can be accessed on a computer (unlike the essay for Young, Violent, Dangerous, which was nowhere to be found on the disc). Alexander's essay shows a real appreciation for the film and is a fun read, although he erroneously suggests that the fictional Hoffman of the film is actually the author of the 19th Century-penned Shock-Headed Peter.
I appreciate the effort to make a film that transcends genre, but Plot of Fear is just too disjointed and convoluted to really be considered successful.
Not quite guilty, but tougher going than it should have been.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
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