American video director Alex Ritt (Rick Gianasi) goes to Rome in order to shoot some promotional films for Italian singing sensation Stefania Stella (herself) only to find that a serial killer is at large in the city.
Since Alex's wife and a number of other women fell victim to a killer with a similar modus operandi back in New York, suspicion quickly falls upon Alex, forcing him to track down the killer in order to clear his name.
As far as this basic scenario goes, Fatal Frames doesn't sound too bad. Indeed, it's very much a classic giallo set-up obviously inspired by The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Tenebre.
And, indeed, things get better when we consider that there are also plenty of iconic guest star appearance (ranging from Ciccio Ingrassia as a beggar, to Alida Valli as a blind seer, to Donald Pleasance as a detective, to Angus Scrimm as an apparent ghost, to Rossano Brazzi as a doctor) along with plenty of “violence numbers” and effective use of iconic locations like the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain.
Unfortunately there are also many fundamental problems with the film.
At over two hours it's way too long. Most of the blame for this can be attributed to producer and star Stefania Stella, who just also happened to be the partner of writer, director and composer Al Festa. While the film isn't a complete vanity project, it's fair to say that the target audience were more interested in violence numbers than her musical ones. Nor does it help that Stella is neither the most attractive of women nor much of an actress.
Then there's the fact that Ritt and his male co-stars are from the same muscled, long-haired mould. While of benefit when it comes to the killer's identity, that the shadowy form of the killer could be any of them, it also means that one is frequently having to do a double take to tell who is who.
Then there's Festa's direction. He tries, but way too hard: Every scene is lit and filmed like a music video, stylised for its own sake. While a fair reflection of his own background and that of his protagonist, it makes for a tiring and confusing viewing experience as we're constantly having to determine whether this or that image is supposed to be subjective or objective and if the self-conscious use of technique has any significance or not at this particular moment. In terms of Koven's Pasolinian poetic / prosaic reading of the giallo, Festa has attempted to make every scene poetic, with the paradoxical result that all become prosaic.
The shame in all of this is that there's the sense of a leaner, meaner, better film struggling to escape from Fatal Frames' bloated form.