Written by: Paolo Cavara (story), Enrico Oldoini, and Bernardino Zapponi
Directed by: Paolo Cavara
Starring: Corinne Cléry, Michele Placido and Quinto Parmeggiani
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Why does there always have to be a butler in every murder mystery?"
A discussion of a giallo typically starts with its often outlandish and ludicrous title--sometimes, it seems like these things were cooked up to explicitly mirror just how outrageous the films themselves are. However, Paola Cavara’s second (and last) giallo doesn’t give you much to work with by carrying the remarkably generic title, Plot of Fear. At least it gives you some indication of what the film has to offer--there most definitely is an elaborate plot, but how much fear it exudes will depend upon how scared you are of 70s European libertines and their sex parties. Oddly enough, it actually does include animals, so you’d think one would show up in the title, but nope, this particular genre refuses to make much sense.
The same can be said of the plot here, of course, as it’s typical giallo fare--we open with a murder, which ends up being one of several, and each crime scene is adorned with pictures from a children’s book. Our intrepid man on the scene (Michele Placido) deduces that he’s dealing with a serial killer, so he continues to investigate as the bodies mount. He has to contend with another private eye (Eli Wallach) and also gets tangled up with a girl (Corinne Cléry) that once attended a party that played host to all of the victims.
Like a lot of giallo films, Plot of Fear is a bit daunting and a difficult beast to wrangle since it throws so many names and faces at you early on. Once you get settled in and pin it down, it becomes a bit more manageable--eventually, you gather that all of these people are being murdered for their connection to that ill-fated party where a girl died, so Plot of Fear plays as a precursor to one of those “prank gone wrong” slashers. Even when the cut of the film’s jib becomes obvious, it’s still hardly graceful in its steps--there’s a gaggle of silly dialogue and plot contrivances, and you’ll see one twist coming from a mile away when it’s mentioned that the body of a supposedly dead guy was never found. By ‘76, Plot of Fear would have been trudging down a fairly well-worn path with this stuff, and anyone who has seen even a dozen gialli will feel like they’ve been here before, at least until the end is reached, at which point the film gets a bit inventive.
That Plot of Fear is so rote and mechanical for the most part isn’t its worst aspect; more dismaying is how altogether dull and dry it is outside of a couple of murder sequences that involve immolation and a huge pipe wrench. While it’s sufficiently draped in 70s retro-chic stylings, there’s a dearth of artistic bravura to set this apart from its contemporaries, even though it is well-photographed and scored with a suitably jangly and swinging soundtrack. Similarly, its performances are good--Wallach especially exudes a subtle menace, and Tom Skerriit inexplicably shows up during onc scene. Meanwhile, Placido reveals himself to be a bit of an ineffectual putz compared to a lot of giallo heroes. Dominated by his black girlfriend before being ditched by her, he finds himself attempting to strike up a romance with Cléry’s character that seems ill-fated given her placement as the film’s “dark woman,” to borrow a phrase from film noir.
Placido’s character is an interesting sort for what he represents--the sort of working-class man caught up in this insane upper-class conspiracy that eventually sprawls out to include a smuggling racket. Like Cavara’s Black Belly of the Tarantula, Plot of Fear branches out into hard-boiled crime thriller territory, another genre the Italians would co-opt in the wake of The French Connection. This film has flashes of perceptiveness at times--nearly every 70s giallo feels like a reaction against the decade that preceded it, and Plot of Fear is awash in sexual liberation, open relationships, and even casual racial epithets. An early scene in a police station contains an exchange that feels like a Psycho-style joke at the time; an onlooker insists that these murders are a psychotic attempt to slash away at all of this. As it turns out, this psycho-babble is really no joke since it cuts right to the point of Plot of Fear, a film that presents how easily a maniac can use this mad world against itself. The flashback to the infamous party is quite a scene as we watch his scene of debonair hedonism play out in the form of make-out sessions, a pet monkey, and a perverse cartoon sex show that features a forced anal penetration gag. There’s a sense that all of these people (with the exception of the hired prostitute that gets killed) probably deserve to die, which puts us in an interesting place as an audience, and Plot of Fear doesn’t come without trace amounts of black humor to cast a bleak, nihilistic gaze on all of this.
Plot of Fear also refracts back onto the giallo itself by examining the working parts of a murder mystery--the modes, the methods, and the motives. The only problem is that it stumbles in establishing that final point, even after the entire movie gets untangled by a lengthy, almost fifteen minute long conversation that’s every bit as clunky as it sounds. Layers to this mystery keep getting peeled away, and it’s as absurd as any other movie of this type, but it might make less sense than most of them. And that’s a bad thing in this case. Some gialli can get away with their absurd last-second revelations, but Plot of Fear more leaden than wacky, more befuddling than admirably opaque. Raro Video has specialized in plucking this sort of stuff from obscurity, and they’ve done a fine job with their DVD release of the film that'll be released on May 8th. Featuring an anamorphic recently restored transfer and a 2.0 Dolby Digital Italian track, the disc is also rounded out with a trio of interviews with Placido, Pietro Cavara, and screenwriter Enrico Oldoini. The liner notes that usually accompany Raro’s releases come courtesy of Fango’s Chris Alexander, but they’re now a PDF file on the actual disc, but it’s certainly worth looking into since it provides an interesting take on the film. It’s a take I don’t particularly share--for my money, Plot of Fear is just a little too thick and clumsy despite the subtexts rumbling beneath the surface. Certainly worth a look for giallo aficionados, though. Rent it!
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