Given that this 1992 thriller is directed by the talented Aldo Lado yet struggles to achieve anything like the success of his previous work within the same broad territory, it could be taken as an exemplar of the problems facing Italian filmmakers at the time. Quite simply, audience interest had went elsewhere and the filmmakers were unsure how to respond.
Though Lado had certainly drawn from The Last House on the Left when making Late Night Trains some 15 or so years earlier, he had also succeeded in crafting something which was distinctively situated within its own national and historical contexts.
This is one of the things which is most lacking here, with there being no sense of the events occuring within any definable – or well defined – framework. Rather, it feels more like Lado and his collaborators, including regular Argento writing partner Franco Ferrini, simply cobbled together elements from traditional Italian giallo and poliziotto entries and adding in some Hong Kong “heroic bloodshed” style action and imagery along with The Silence of the Lambs Hollywood serial killer-isms, without much rhyme or reason or, more importantly, effect.
The credits begin with a giallo image
Before we enter into Deadly China Dolls / Heroic Bloodshed territory
Though the killer is soon back to business
The story starts off as confusingly as it means to continue, with the arrival of various parties at a Chinese restaurant. Before long an uncomfortably directed shoot out occurs, by way of which we learn that cops Tony and Lisa are intent on busting gangster Mancini with the consignment of heroin he was picking up. Though the cops sieze the heroin and money, Mancini escapes.
Lisa and her boss
Back at the station, their boss berates them for acting without orders, pointing out that it was only supposed to be a surveillance and evidence gathering exercise: “I want my best agents to behave like cops, not Rambo rip-offs.”
Later that evening, Tony and Lisa comiserate with some lovemaking: they are partners off the job as well as on it, with this also serving to amusingly highlight the unspoken subtext of many a male-male buddy cop film of similar vintage.
Around about this point we also get some curious scenes of a dangerous madwoman, the Countess, in an asylum and of another looking around the outside of and photographing a house.
The first connection is made when Tony and the latter woman, his soon to be ex- in more ways than one Elvi, visit the courthouse to finalise their divorce proceedings. In the parking lot they are shot by two gunmen, killing Elvi and leaving Tony in a coma, from which he soon recovers. (There is a short black and white flashback here, which led me to briefly hope that the film might be about to enter into Short Night of Glass Dolls territory.)
Tony's immediate feeling is that Mancini was behind the hit, but this does not square with the unprofessionalism of the assassins in targeting Elvi first and leaving him alive. The plot thus thickens further as he receives the photographs Elvi took of the house, revealing a shadowy figure at a window when blown up, and then investigates the house, which used to belong to the countess, finding a Deep Red-style mummified body, with its head in the oven.
Is this the face of the killer at the window?
Initially it is believed to be the Countess's son, Marco, but the forensic examination reveals that the victim is female and died a violent death. Meanwhile, the murder of a prostitute indicates that a serial killer, long thought dead or inactive, has returned...
The dialogue is pretty awful, encompassing just about every cop movie cliché one could imagine and again lacking the subtleties of earlier films, as with the foreshadowing throwaway references to vampires in Short Night of the Glass Dolls: “Police: Get Your Hands Up. Don't even think about it!”
Giallo technology, circa 1990
The leads are also distinctly C-level, although the actress playing Lisa is certainly easy on the eyes. As such, the old familiar faces among the supporting players – Philippe Leroy as the chief, Bobby Rhodes as the pathologist – are welcome as ever, while Romano Mussolini's jazzy score provides a pleasant aural backdrop though at times also veers into more routine 80s sax and synth territory.
Tony and the Countess
Lado doesn't give the impression of being a 'natural' action director. He tries, but the shoot outs are devoid of excitement, with the panning and scanning making it more difficult to work out the spatial relationships between the characters. He does, however, manage a few moments that recall past glories, such as the mirrored reflections when the Countess is interrogated Hannibal Lektor style, suggestive of the way in which the characters are haunted by one another's presences and pasts.