Two murders, those of well-known sexual deviant Mattia Grandi and a middle-aged woman, Laura Falconieri, occur on the same night in Milan, a connection between them established through what is soon to become the killer's calling card: illustrations from Pierino Porcospino / Shock Headed Peter, a tale by E T A Hoffmann.
Complete with a representation of lion, subtly introducing a plot point
The man with the worst anglicised pseudonym, Franco Fumigalli alias Frank Smokecocks
Lieutenant Lomenzo (Michele Placido), a progressive-minded Neapolitan cop transferred up to Milan and determined to do his best to disprove Northern Italian stereotypes of their Southern countrymen is assigned the case.
One of the killer's calling cards
His investigations soon reveal that both victims were members of a group known as the Wildlife Friends. Though their name sounds innocent, their activities were decidedly less so, involving orgies at the Villa Hoffmann. Then again, immorality and illegality are not the same thing – unless you happen to be of a more conservative mindset than Lomenzo who, when asked why he doesn't arrest a couple making love in public, replies that he's “on their side.” More importantly, the group split up years ago, however, following the death of its founder and the villa's owner, Hoffmann (John Steiner) himself.
An example of the film's pervasive wit
As the “cartoon killer” continues to murder, Lomenzo makes the acquaintance of Jeanne (Corrine Clery), an associate of his girlfriend Ruth, who provides some futher clues in the case.
The first encounter between Lomenzo and Jeanne, in the lift
She confesses to Lomenzo that she was present at the Villa Hoffman on the night a prostitute, Rosa Catena, died of a heart attack at one of the Wildlife Friends' orgies after the Friends acted as if they were going to feed the girl to a tiger.
Riccio expounds his philosophy
A number of things do not make sense, however. Isn't it somewhat out of character for Rosa's former pimp, Agostino, to be seeking revenge on the remaining members of the Wildlife Friends as Jeanne contends – especially after four years have passed since her death. Wouldn't a tiger have been sent from Asia and not Africa, to which it is not a native species? Why should a vagrant glimpsed on the grounds of the villa be wearing nearly new, obviously expensive shoes? What motivates the enigmatic private investigator Pietro Riccio (Eli Wallach), who seems to have just about everyone of importance in the city – including the killers' victims – under surveillance, in providing advice and assistance to Lomenzo? Is Jeanne implicated in more than she lets on – and, if so, will the clearly infauated Lomenzo be able to separate out his professonial and the personal involments with her?
The Biancaneve style sexy cartoon
E Tanta Paura / Plot of Fear's Writer-director Paulo Cavara only made two gialli, this and the earlier Black Belly of the Tarantula, but they are enough to mark him out as someone with a distinctive take on the form. While he foregrounds the official police investigator above the conventional amateur sleuth here, this cannot entirely be explained away as a consession to the poliziotto audience insofar as the earlier film, made at the height of the post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage, used the same device.
In both cases, moreover, the cop and the mystery he investigates retain a distance from the polziotto act first, think later approach. It is not that Michele Placido or Giancarlo Giannini are incapable of doing the action man thing when required, as envinced here by the lengthy chase and fight that leads to the apprehension of Agostini, more that Cavara seems to prefer more sensitive, introspective and downright quirky cop figures above one dimensional displays of crowd-pleasing macho bullheadedness.
Put another way, it's hard to imagine Maurizio Merli entertaining the thought of eating macrobiotic food in preference to spaghetti and sugo or referencing positivist criminologist Cesare Lombroso by way of criticising his partners' common-sense approach to policework as Placido does here.
Politics and mirrors
Although such moments lighten the mood they are never allowed to dominate, with the audience constantly being reminded of the deadly serious nature of the game: No sooner have we been introduced to Grandi in his garishly decorated apartment and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band reject outfit and his particular sexual peccadilloes (“Did you ever have him?” “No, I'm in the lesbian department. He hung out at the S&M fetish area in Porta Volta”) than he is strangled to death. The Amuck-like pornographic cartoon that plays in Jeanne's account of activities at the Villa Hoffmann likewise raises a smile, but were's soon dragged back down to reality as the luckless, soon to be dead, Rosa is called upon to service one of the guests with a blow-job under the table while the others attempt to guess who the lucky man is from the expression on his face. Then there's the moment when one of the rapidly dwindling number of Wildlife Friends, having decided to get out of Milan before it is too late, gives the finger to a hitchhiker on the autostrada only for his own car to break down and the driver of the passing lorry he tries to flag down give him the same treatment, after which he is then run down by the next vehicle...
The film was co-scripted by frequent Fellini collabotor and Deep Red co-writer Bernardino Zapponi, with a sense of connection to the Argento film through the haunted house, children's story and return of the past motifs. At the same time, however, one also wonders if Argento was thinking of Plot of Fear's use of Hoffman when he made Sleepless, with its nursery-rhyme killer also leaving distinctive calling cards with each victim.
Steiner is amusingly typecast, with his character at one point admitting to having a father in the SS. While obviously cast for her physical assets and willingness to display them, Clery again impresses by making something more enigmatic of her character, making you wonder whether she is expressing her genuine feelings or putting on a very good performance. Placido and Wallach are even better, the former trying too hard to live up to an impossible ideal and the latter by turns impish, deadly earnest and simply enigmatic, someone who may be a Mabuse but not necessarily an entirely malign one.
If the film has a weakness, it is that it raises more questions than it can hope to answer on the incommensurability of law and order and the fixedness versus changeability of human nature, with the ambiguous denoument being likely to disappoint more mainstream audiences wanting to see something more traditional and unequivocal by which the bad guy(s) are unmasked and punished and the good guy(s) triumphant. It does work out that way, but only in an approximate, so-so way at best...
Cavara's direction is effective, drawing us in to the mystery and providing enough hints as to what might be going on without being so obvious as to overdo things. Thus, for example, while the climax foregrounds the role of mirrors, their deploymenpt through the course of the narrative is more subtle, seen in the likes of repeated shots of the Placido and company driving around, the streets above them frequently reflected on their windscreens, or in opening a shot with an image on a surface. Vision, or its obscuring, are pivotal.
Men are pigs?
When he goes for the jugular he can also provide effective shocks as well, as when a pan along a row of gutted pigs in a slaughterhouse ends with one of cartoon killer's victims on a meathook, or the burning alive of another, “Joan of Arc” style.
Daniele Patucchi's music is less satisfactory, though the fuzz guitar driven main theme is endearingly trashy and very catchy. The suspense cues could be better, however.
The film is available on R0 DVD from Raro.