Plot of Fear Review

One winter's night in Milan, a masochist is strangled to death by a prostitute, while a woman is bludgeoned to death in a deserted bus. The murders continue, and, at the scene of each crime, the police find a page from a children's picture book, Pierino-Porcospino. The cantankerous Lieutenant Lomenzo (Michele Placido) quickly realises the obvious: he's dealing with a serial killer, and the book holds some significance. His investigation brings him into contact with Jeanne (Corinne Clery), the sultry vamp living on the floor above his apartment, about whom there may be more than meets the eye. As he probes deeper, he discovers that the victims were all members of a society called the Fauna Lovers' Club, led by the picture book's author, the sinister Hoffmann (John Steiner), whose house was the site of the accidental death of a prostitute, Rosa Catena, four years earlier...

As I've commented in more than one giallo review, as the idealism of the 1960s' climate of freedom and excess became ever more distant, the genre's outlook became increasingly bleak and nihilistic. Plot of Fear (...e Tanta Paura to Italian audiences), released in 1976, is not a giallo in the conventional sense, but it certainly owes a lot to the work of Dario Argento, Sergio Martino and the various other filmmakers who made the colour yellow synonymous with screaming damsels and black-gloved assassins in the earlier part of the decade. It also corresponds with my views on the genre's progression throughout the 70s: lacking the baroque architecture of Argento's Animal Trilogy and lavish excess of Martino and Luciano Ercoli's exotic "jet set" adventures, this is a cold, distant thriller set in an anonymous concrete jungle in which everyone seems to hate everyone else and the only sexual relations people can have are either violent or fraught with emotional turmoil.

The animated pornography watched by members of the Fauna Lovers' Club, which includes everything from spanking to forced anal penetration with a giant mechanical dildo, seems to pretty much sum up the film's attitude to sex: a power game in which sadistic men exert themselves over helpless women. It's interesting, therefore, that Lomenzo's relationship with his black girlfriend, Ruth, seems to reverse this dynamic: she may be a housewife, confined to their apartment, but she is very much the ruler of this domain, and, while the pair enjoy a decidedly active sex life, it is on her terms rather than his. The relationship does, however, reveal some of the casual racism that seemed to permeate throughout Italian genre films of this vintage. ("You're worse than a black man!" she complains, when he suggests new "positions" to try out in the bedroom.) Lomenzo's eventual relationship with Jeanne, meanwhile, suggests that, even in this world of violent sadism, a healthy, loving relationship might possibly be allowed to exist, although by the end of the film it too has disintegrated due to a lack of trust and commitment. (Then again, "Before I go to sleep, I usually have sex" is perhaps not the greatest proposition upon which to build a lasting relationship.) Director Paolo Cavara's previous giallo, the solid The Black Belly of the Tarantula, explored similar themes of fractured relationships, but they are at their most prominent here.

The presence of sexual politics should not be surprising when one considers that the script was written by Bernardino Zapponi, who the previous year collaborated with Dario Argento on the seminal Profondo Rosso, a film which served as a virtual manifesto of its director's views on men and women, and from which Plot of Fear borrows the theme of a child's fairytale serving as a vital clue. One also gets the feeling, with the subplot of surveillance and themes of manipulation and blackmail, that this is a world in which the inhabitants are not in control of their own lives. There seems to be an underlying fear of technology - at one point, Riccio (Eli Wallach) claims that all you need is a telephone to control a whole city - and the lack of privacy in which it results. This motif is continued throughout the film, especially in the fascination with television screens (through which the events of a considerable portion of the climax are relayed), while the final revelation of precisely who killed who is genuinely surprising and shows that, with modern technology at his fingertips, a serial killer need not even get his hands dirty.

For a film of its type, Plot of Fear is unusually complex in its portrayal of its main characters. Michele Placido may not be the most charismatic actor, but his character, Lomenzo, is an intriguing jumble of conflicting emotions. Like so many male giallo protagonists, he's not particularly likeable - he is at times childishly petulant, and doesn't so much berate people as scream at them till he's red in the face. He's a dedicated cop, though, and, despite being irritatingly self-involved in his desire to be seen as "one of the good guys", at the end of the day he actually is a good guy. Corinne Clery, meanwhile, who was at the time arguably best known for her role in Just Jaeckin's de Sadean The Story of O, is haunting as the femme fatale who knows more about the murders than she initially lets on. She and Placido work well together, and his most compelling scenes are when he is with her, as the attraction between the pair seems almost real. Tom Skerritt and Eli Wallach, of all people, also show up as the Chief Inspector and the tycoon Riccio respectively, while genre favourite John Steiner (Tenebre, Shock) does what he does best: the sinister, slightly camp villain.

Plot of Fear may disappoint viewers who like their gialli exotic or camp, and as a straight murder mystery, it's not perfect. It showcases some annoying shortcuts - such as the initially unidentified man collecting obituaries of the dead, shown to have a disfigured hand, which serves no narrative purpose other than, presumably, to make the audience suspect that he is the killer (the old "exterior disfigurement suggests interior disfigurement" non-logic). Likewise, a handful of plot strands are never fully addressed, such as Lomenzo's constant coughing, which is never given any particular reason or significance. Still, as an example of the genre at its more serious and downtrodden, this is a compelling thriller with a palpable atmosphere of pessimism and distrust. It may lack the grandeur of an Argento or the viscera of a Fulci, but Cavara's film is a fine addition to the genre and one that can boast to offer something slightly different from the usual run of animal-titled chic slashers.

DVD Presentation

This DVD release of Plot of Fear is by Raro Video, an Italian firm with as many misses to their name as hits. Sadly, this is an example of one of the former. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the transfer is non-anamorphic and looks decidedly soft throughout. The contrast level is also all wrong, with the blacks looking far too grey, although the noticeably desaturated colours are probably a stylistic choice. The image is certainly watchable, and I've seen gialli look far worse on DVD, but it's disappointing nonetheless, and is likely to frustrate viewers with widescreen displays.

In terms of audio, Raro have always been very good at fully catering to both Italian and English speakers, and this release is no exception. Audio comes in both Italian and English flavours, with optional English subtitles. Unfortunately, the volume of the English track is noticeably lower than that of the Italian, and sounds a lot more strained, at times making the dialogue difficult to follow, while the Italian track seems to drift slightly out of sync with the video at various points.

The subtitles correspond to the Italian dialogue, and on numerous occasions reveal differences in the translation: the Fauna Lovers' Club, for example, is translated as the Wildlife Friends in the English dub. The text is grammatically correct and easy to follow, although the timing is at times a little off, and it contains a couple of rather bizarre errors, such as Eli Wallach's character being referred to as "Mr. Struwwel", despite the fact that his name can clearly be heard as Riccio on both audio tracks.

The only extras are a biography and filmography for director Cavara, again offered in both English and Italian.

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