Where do you go next if you've already made what is widely regarded as the most notorious film ever made? That's a problem which Italian exploitation king Ruggero Deodato never adequately solved. After "Cannibal Holocaust", his career seemed to degenerate into a grey morass of average thrillers and generic slasher movies, of which "Phantom of Death" is but one. This Italian-made pseudo giallo does boast one '70s Italian sexploitation goddess and two fairly big international names from the '80s; and there is enough unintentional idiosyncrasy here to make the film at least worthy of a screening by anyone who's remotely interested in either the giallo or exploitation cinema in general. Just don't let the fact that it is written by "New York Ripper" scribes Gianfranco Clerici & Vincenzo Mannino fool you into expecting anything other than mildly sleazy thriller fare though.
Michael York is Robert Dominici - a handsome classical pianist who appears to have it all: fame, money, good looks, and a constant army of badly dubbed Italian actresses in cheesy '80s fashions battering at his door. What could possibly go wrong? quite a lot as it happens!
We get our first clue right at the beginning. While Dominici is banging away at the ivories during a televised concert, a renowned medical researcher is inter-cut examining something odd through a microscope — only to be butchered with a ceremonial sword in a Fulci-esque display of the gushing red stuff. (The whole film has the feel of early '90s Fulci with slightly higher production values) A tired-looking Donald Pleasence appears, to investigate the case under the name Inspector Datti. Soon the killer is regaling him with Zodiac-like taunts — even phoning him at home, where he lives with his teenage flute-playing daughter, Susanna (Mapi Galan), to threaten his offspring with lewd insinuations and the like, while also boasting that he will never be caught. What has Dominici to do with all this? Well, his girlfriend is the next victim on the killer's list, and gets her throat sliced in typically bloody fashion, before having her head rammed (in a slow motion tribute to similar scenes in Dario Argento's "Suspiria" and "Phenomena") through a window pain. This is an admittedly well executed sequence, but the film takes a weird turn at this point. Having established its credentials as a giallo from the moment York takes up with a still-hot-looking Edwige Fenech - presumably to take the sting out of the brutal slicing of his previous beau - the film now reveals the identity of the killer! (Stop reading now if you actually care!)
It is Dominici himself! After being told that he suffers from a rare ageing disease (which usually afflicts children) by that researcher we saw getting diced at the top of the film, the pianist exploded in anger and hacked her up! It seems the ageing disease also leads to mental instability! Dominici vows to take his bitterness out on the world's beautiful people, and sets off on a kill-frenzy, using his rapidly deteriorating appearance as what turns out to be rather a nifty cover. It transpires that Inspector Datti is already convinced that Dominici is the killer after a witness gives a fairly accurate description of him leaving the scene of the first crime. But when Dominci unsuccessfully attacks Fenech's character, she gives a description of a wrinkled fifty-year-old man rather than the handsome thirty-year-old everyone knows Dominici to be!
How does Dominici hide his condition? Why, by simply refusing to answer the door of his mansion of course! Thereby convincing everybody that he's left town! Clever, eh?! Datti tries to organise a trap in a picturesque Italian park, but Dominici - who by this time is tottering around with a stick and looks about Eighty - slips through the net, not before cutting the throat of a pretty female police officer whom the others rather foolishly leave on her own in the patrol car while they search the grounds!
When Dominici learns that Fenech is pregnant with his child though, he decides that he must now finish the job he left undone and kill her to stop the birth of a son he believes will carry the same genetic condition.
Most of the fun of "Phantom of Death" comes in the completely insensitive manner the film treats the real life genetic condition that afflicts the main character, tagging on the "mental instability" jibe purely as a transparent attempt to avoid having to actually come up with any kind of convincing motive for any of Michael York's actions throughout the film. From the off, we know this is never going to be anything other that a guilty pleasure at best, when it becomes very noticeable that York and Pleasence are acting in a vacuum of Italian actors and actresses whose performances have all been dubbed into English by the same four voice artists who always voice these cheap Italian thrillers from the '70s and '80s! Pleasence, himself, gives a strangely enervated performance. I still can't figure out whether this is a deliberate portrayal of a washed-out cop or whether Pleasence was actually near death at this point; he looks like a recovering cardiac patient! To give him credit, Michael York does throw himself into the whole ridiculous escapade with abandon. His croaky voiced Eighty-year-old is a dead ringer for Paul Whitehouse's "Old Git" character from the Harry Enfield show! and the prospect of a doddering old codger tottering around slicing beautiful girls with a cut throat razor, is daft enough to be mildly entertaining for those not hamstrung with too many PC scruples. Fenech doesn't have a whole lot to do -though she does it all beautifully as usual! - and the plot seems to fizzle out near the end, failing to exploit the implied threat to Pleasence's daughter, for instance, who disappears off to Rome on a train never to be seen again! But with those two fairly good murder set pieces, some jaw-droppingly silly scenes, and its oddball performances, there is enough here to while away a post-curry hangover, at least.
Shameless certainly know how to market these films, encasing the disc in a gaudy "giallo" yellow case with bright red lettering! Oddly they fail to mention the presence of Edwige Fenech very prominently on the cover, when I would imagine she would be a much bigger draw to fans of this genre of film than Michael York would be. The film is presented in a washed-out, overly dark print - although the disc transfer is anamorphic. There are no extras other than trailers for forthcoming Shameless releases which include Fulci's "New York Ripper" and "The Black Cat", & Martino's "Torso".