Phantom of Death (1988)

a.k.a Un Delitto poco comune (ITA)Off Balance (UK)
Michael York and Donald Pleasence star in a gory thriller from Ruggero Deodato. Shameless UK R0 DVD release.

The Film

First a doctor, and then the partner of concert pianist Robert Dominici (Michael York) are brutally murdered in similar fashions. Police Inspector Datti (Donald Pleasence) is forced to draw a blank on the links between them, but starts to get mysterious phone calls from a man claiming to be the killer. Meanwhile we learn that Dominici has been stricken with a very rare aging disorder, that will kill him within months - this has driven him to become a killer. His friend Hélène Martell (Edwige Fenech), announces that she is pregnant with his child, and terrified lest it should grow up with the same condition he tries to kill her, but is interupted, and goes on the run, his ever aging appearance leaving him unrecognisable. Inspector Datti is convinced that Dominici is behind the attacks, but is unable to find his target, and finds himself being tormented with phone calls...

The film opens well and quite mysteriously with a piano performance intercut by a brutal murder. Although presented and marketed as a Giallo film the script throws in its cards at the 30 minute mark to reveal to us the killer with a flashback scene more like the ending of a film than its mid-point. Fortunately the storyline has enought drive to keep it moving for the next hour and it avoids desending into simple slasher movie territory, instead coming somewhere between police drama and a serial killer film with the focus on the exchange between Robert and the Inspector. The pacing is rather quick and there is certainly no padding - fortunately the characterisation of the three leads is decent and by keeping the central cast so small it helps to keep the film focused. In a nod to another of the decade's most popular genres, the film contains some martial arts scenes that although rather pointless don't come off as too gratuitous. The ending is fitting if a little drawn out.

Deodato's direction is generally strong, although the editing that is so good at the film's start gets very jumpy in many places and it can be very hard to gauge the passage of time in the storyline, which actually stretches out over almost a year. The light soundtrack is good although it is a pity that more piano music was not used particularly in the film's finale. The special effects work is mostly solid raising the film above its exploitation roots and the gory scenes are brief enough to keep it shocking (although a dream-sequence beheading looks incredibly fake). The brutal railway station murder in particular does seem to be a homage to Argento.

The cast are all rather older than we are used to seeing them, but it suits the film well. Michael York is superb in the role and looks very good and convincing in the make-up - indeed if the film were made in America it would probably be hailed as one of his very best performances. Donald Pleasance makes for a perfect jaded and world-weary detective and gives an impressively strong performance - an interesting twist on his famous Dr. Loomis role. Forty year-old Edwige Fenech has lost none of her beauty, although she gets rather less screentime than the other leads, while fans of cult horror will recognise Giovanni Lombardo Radice in a brief role as a priest, and Deodato himself cameos as a passerby outside the station murder scene.

Probably best defined as a mature slasher film, raising some fascinating issues about death and aging, Phantom of Death is a very good film. I would suggest that the typical video nasty audience might find this rather dull, with much more focus on plot than gore - it will certainly appeal however, to fans of the Giallo and Poliziesco films of the 1970s, and to them it comes recommended.

In brief:

Anyone famous in it? Michael York - a British actor, best known now for starring in Austin Powers films, but has an impressive filmography.
Donald Pleasence - widely travelled British star, who appeared in THX 1138 (1971) and The Great Escape (1963)
Edwige Fenech - beautiful Italian star of many of the best Gialli, including The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)
Directed by anyone interesting? Ruggero Deodato - the Italian director behind the infamous Cannibal Holocaust (1979), who also helmed Live Like a Cop Die like a Man (1976) and Airport rip-off Concorde Affaire '79 (1979)
Any gore/violence? A couple of very bloody death scenes, although not as gory as many films of the era.
Any sex? A couple of brief topless/sex scenes.
Who is it for?
One for fans of the Giallo era, but a little too much plot for fans of the more hardcore video nasties.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
Picture quality is strong, with mild grain and no real damage. Some brief but noticable artifacting in the night scenes.
Audio English stereo - sounds okay, but noticable hiss throughout. York and Pleasence's distinctive voices are retained.
Subtitles None.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Original theatrical trailer.
  • Trailer reel for more Shameless DVD releases.
      Region Region 0 (ALL) - PAL
      Other regions? Previously available from Kult films Germany.
      Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. The print used is English language.



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      All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 21st October 2007.
      Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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