Phantom of Death (1988)
directed by Ruggero Deodato
starring Michael York, Edwige Fenech and Donald Pleasance
I think that the Phantom Project has caused me to develop a love-hate relationship with giallo films (the Italian horror subgenre to which this movie and both Argento films belong). On the one hand, I hate them because they're often low-budget, prone to Kool-Aid Man-sized plot holes, and incredibly misogynistic, to a point where it's hard to even watch them as a lady. On the other hand, I love them because despite all these problems, they also are almost always trying to say something interesting about humanity, and no matter how low the budget, they still try to make art out of their slasher flick. I'd probably never watch them for fun, but whenever I watch them in pursuit of scholarship, I'm still impressed by what they can do with such a limited niche and tools. Until that elusive day when we find a Phantom slasher movie that is thoughtful and interesting as well as well-produced and professional, they're all we've got. Keep dreaming big, though, everybody.
As you can see right off the bat from the list of actors up there, we've got some interesting personalities in this movie, doing their damndest to make it pop despite its hefty problems. It's especially neat to see Michael York; a few years earlier he appeared as the dashing Raoul character Michael in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, and it's a real treat to see him in this movie on the other side of the mask. I have such a soft spot for recurring Phantom film actors; I want to go to a party with this guy, Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, and Derek Rydall and pick their brains about the crazy coincidences of their careers. Donald Pleasance is also a pleasant (ha!) surprise as the police inspector who will be doing most of the Raouling in this movie.
The film's introduction is a long piano-playing sequence in which York, playing Robert Dominici, a master musician, wows his audience at a triumphant recital. While I often appreciate the attempts at artful shots in movies like this, this intro sequence tries for ethereal and spine-tingling but fails thanks to the confusing lack of information and over-frequent cutaways; a female doctor working busily at a microscope is obviously about to become the first murder victim, which is an expected device, but an obviously Japanese-style sword arts scene involving slicing apples from a master's hands and chin comes out of left field and raises way more questions than it answers. They're shown together because the doctor is murdered by someone with a sword - in the best shot of the sequence, we see two decorative swords on the wall behind her, and when she returns from the other room we realize a few moments before the murder that only one sword remains - but the bewilderment of Mystery Ninja Theatre is going to hound us the entire length of the movie.
Mysteries abound in this beginning scene, which is good for a movie involving a mystery! Why are we seeing these flashbacks during Robert's performance, and does that mean he's thinking of acts he performed or innocent because they're happening while he's playing? What was the doctor studying, and why did somebody kill her? Where does the dojo fit in, and who decided we needed that much carotid artery spray?
But alas, no answers yet, so back to Robert's concert. It seems pretty clear to those of us used to the Phantom story that he must be the title character, thanks to his musical genius, although I did briefly wonder if this might, like the Ye ban ge sheng movies, be a rare case of a male Christine figure (it's not. Giallo films are not exactly progressive). There are at least three ladies dotted throughout the crowd giving him the smoldering eye (guess they're really turned on by Chopin, which is fair), however, cementing him off the bat as a playboy with many lovers, something that most versions of the Phantom don't have the luxury of.
Everything was fine during the piano-playing and the murdering, but after that people started talking and everything went to shit. I thought at first that my copy of the film must just be bad, because surely there was no way any movie could have a dubbing track this bad. Alas, though it wasn't just me; a large percentage of the actors (almost everyone except for the three main characters) have been dubbed over with prim British voices that don't match their lips and are often about as urgent and emotional as tea and biscuits. Because York and Pleasance don't need to be dubbed, being as English as they could be already, their lines are in the normal film soundtrack, which provides a very unfortunate contrast to the too-loud dubbed overlay of everyone else. Even more bizarre, basic lip-reading makes it obvious that the actors are in fact speaking their lines in English, but without matching up to the obvious dubbed track, which is just straight-up baffling. My thought here is that, from the movements of their mouths, they probably have thick Italian accents (you know, because they're mostly Italian) and therefore despite the fact that they are speaking in English, they were dubbed over to make them more understandable anyway (or perhaps more palatable to an English-speaking European audience?). It's disastrously distracting, even after the audience has had time to get used to it, and the final insult is that Fenech, whose thick French accent makes her difficult to understand in many of her lines, is the only female actor not dubbed for some reason.
If you can focus past the uncoordinated soundtrack, you'll discover that Dominici has a girlfriend, Susanna, who was one of his ardent audience fans but is apparently upset with him because they've been having an on-again, off-again fight over their future; she wants to get married and have kids, he thinks that would be giving up his youth and refuses, and everyone's feelings are hurt. After she stomps out on him and he spends some time flirting with Fenech's character Helene, apparently an old (or current? this Phantom is kind of a cad) flame, we're left with an odd half-formed love triangle and no real idea what's going on yet.
But that's okay, because ninjas. Or, more accurately, samurai, since this new scene at the dojo involves two men fighting with shinai, bamboo practice swords. While I'm baffled by the inclusion of the Japanese elements in this movie - seriously, they will never be explained and kind of make no sense - I'm also interested. At least this movie can say it is definitely doing something other Phantom films don't, and I think it's actually doing a surprisingly effective job of representing the Phantom's classic connection to the mysteries of the East, substituting the exotic fighting styles of Japan for audiences who know that the dusky palaces of Persia are mostly long gone.
At any rate, it's revealed here that one of the two masked fighters is Dominici, who apologizes for his poor showing and explains that he's been feeling distracted lately. Sword-wielding Phantom is established!
We now get to meet Pleasance as Commissioner Datti, who is also paying a lot of attention to swords but is considerably less enthused about it than I am. I don't think much of his forensics team, who apparently don't really understand how swords work since they tell him that death by throat-slitting was "instantaneous", and the usual movie Phantom police bumbling begins. What is it with law enforcement in Phantom movies always being absolute failures for at least three quarters of the film? I get that they can't be too good at their jobs off the bat - if they caught the Phantom in the first ten minutes, we probably wouldn't have too much of a movie - but seriously, wouldn't his criminal genius be better illustrated if he could hoodwink cops who weren't actually blithering goats? I'm just saying.
Yaaaay, boobies! Welcome to Oh, Right, This Movie Is Italian! This scene is well-shot and carefully shadowed, leading the audience to think that the couple having sex in the bed are probably Robert and one of his ladies, only to reveal after they separate that it was in fact Susanna with an extracurricular lover of her own. As always, I sprang into action to talk about all the interesting ways that a Christine who has more than one sexual partner is uncommon in Phantom stories and what it might mean in a 1980s Italian cultural context, but also as always, it turns out shortly that Susanna is not really the Christine character and all my theorizing is for naught. Alas. The lady obviously doesn't feel good about cheating on Robert, despite their recent fight, and her guilt combined with the realization that her flame Davide is actually forming an attachment to her causes her to leave with the intention of turning over a new leaf and reconciling with Robert as soon as possible.
...which of course involves her wandering off into the streets at stupid o'clock and refusing to allow Davide to drive her to the train station. Women being easily murdered after deciding to head out into dangerous territory alone is, after all, a requirement in bad horror films. And get murdered she does, after a thoroughly unconvincing fakeout that was meant to make us think she was going to make it; the shock factor Deodato was reaching for isn't there, but there is a rather lovely, artsy shot of her crashing through a glass door after being stabbed, turning the clear window in it red with blood. It goes without saying that Susanna is subtextually being punished for sleeping with Davide - in the shorthand of the movies, she's proven herself to be "slutty" and must therefore be murdered for this capital crime. And, by contrast, Helene will later be lauded as a paragon of feminine perfection thanks to her enduring love for Robert, giving her more of that virginal Christine shine by way of contrasting her with the demonized Susanna.
An interesting twist on the idea of the Phantom's superpowers surfaces early in the movie and returns here; earlier, while talking to Helene, Robert jokingly said he could sometimes see the future, and in this scene repeats the idea to Datti, to whom he explains that he was the one to find Susanna's body first because he had had a "premonition" that she might be in danger and decided to go out and look for her. While those of us who are not wearing empty gourds on our shoulders instead of heads are pretty well aware that Robert is probably the killer and therefore doesn't need any kind of prognostication to forecast that Susanna was going to die, it's still interesting that the supernatural element was preserved, moved from the nineteenth-century thrills of hypnotism and ventriloquism to a quasi-modern notion of ESP.
And, by the way, while those who come into this movie looking for a Phantom are easily able to point to Robert and then just sit around waiting to see when his guilt will be revealed, Deodato does do a credible job of not giving the whole game away from the beginning. For at least the first half of the film, we have no idea why Robert would have any motive to murder people, and his genuine emotional reaction to the loss of Susanna and the film's habit of following him as a protagonist much of the time combine to give the viewer more than a few scenes of doubt. I'm a pretend professional at watching movies like this, and even I, a few times, had a second of "Wait, but are we sure he did it?"
Wait, what? In a throwaway line here while Davide is being interrogated to make sure he didn't murder Susanna for leaving him, he mentions that he and Robert are best friends. What? Since when? We've never even seen them in the same room together, let alone having a conversation, and we never will for the rest of the movie. What the hell kind of best friend is that? The line is probably an attempt by some well-meaning screenwriter to manufacture some more dramatic possibilities by giving the men a motive to feel betrayed by one another... but since they never actually do that, it's mostly just there to be confusing.
After some shots of a shirtless York wandering around (ladies!), Helene shows up to try to console him after Susanna's death and he gives a very interesting monologue about his hatred of sympathy, which he cites as his reason for refusing to leave the house and face all the people who are currently feeling bad for him. The proud rejection of others' pity is very in keeping for a Phantom character, but the actual lines he says also subvert the idea; when he bitterly says, "Other peoples' sorrow doesn't help your own. It doesn't help you adjust or try to forget," he is rejecting sympathy not because he doesn't want pity but because it doesn't help him personally, something that would have been very much at odds with the original Erik's ability to be moved by Christine's emotions. It sets the stage nicely for the rest of the film, in which it will become increasingly obvious that sympathy is the thing that Robert most fears being pointed in his direction.
Helene appears to be here mostly so she can offer to have sex with Robert to help him get over his dead girlfriend. If that sounds catastrophically badly timed, it's because it is. Even Robert is like, "Man, could you have offered that at any other time in my entire life instead of now?" before he sends her away. Pro tip: people whose significant others have just been horribly murdered are usually not going to react well to you showing up, grinning seductively and saying, "But I'm alive!" Jesus, Helene.
Before she leaves, she asks, "Did you love her very much?", to which Robert intriguingly replies, "I don't know." He goes on to give a very touching speech about Susanna, and about how his last, enduring and most vivid memory of his lover is of seeing her corpse, and how awful it is that he can't remember the times she was beautiful and alive, the way she made him feel, because it's all been swept away by the strength of the horror of her murder. It's a surprisingly poignant portrait of shock and grief, and one of the best moments of the movie for really convincing the viewer that maybe Robert isn't the bad guy here after all.
At this point, the killer beings making anonymous phone calls to Datti, deriding him for failing to catch him, claiming he can never be stopped and making only slightly-veiled threats against the life of Datti's own daughter, a young flautist named Gloria. Gloria's musical talent, appropriate name and status as the only true "innocent" in the movie all put her in the Christine role, one that she'll share with Helene for the rest of the film; similarly, it's now plain that Datti is functioning as a somewhat older Raoul figure than we are used to, protecting a loved one who is family rather than a romantic partner.
But before that continues, it's time for Return to Ninja Theatre: The Revenge of the Ninja, another very short and mostly purposeless scene at the dojo. This time, the only point is that a masked student is revealed to be Davide, not Robert, thus offering him up as another potential suspect for all the sword-murdering that's going around. Since Davide will promptly disappear off the face of the earth after this scene, it's not the most convincing red herring that ever was, but at least someone is trying. The only thing it does do effectively for me is make me suspect that perhaps Susanna's death was perpetrated by Davide, the jealous lover, and blamed on Robert on account of his occupation murdering a bunch of other ladies, but since Davide is no longer appearing in this film, I've got to assume that either I'm wrong or someone somewhere made some unfortunate cuts to the plot.
Deodato goes for a classic fakeout, giving us all the ominous music and leadup to make it look like Helene is about to be murdered (including the abject failure of her dog to do anything about intruders in the house - bulldogs are adorable, but they are terrible guards), but it turns out to just be Robert, drunk enough to take her up on her booty call. The sex scene is actually rather lovely, with soft piano and flute accompaniment and a tasteful fade to black before too long. (By the way, I watched this movie in a crowded game store while John was playing in a tournament, and let me tell you, the appearance of surprise boobs every now and then made the experience challenging.)
Robert leaves behind a single rose (which, if you guys remember, is a Phantom device first introduced in the other film he was in, the 1983 Markowitz/Schell movie!) with a thank-you note and peaces out, to... go find himself, apparently? No explanation is given and we are all about as confused as Helene. He wanders off and moves back in with his mother, where he stays for two months in the blink of an eye, apparently doing nothing and talking to no one. His mother is matronly and pleasant, reminding me a bit of Mama Valerius, which in turn made me again get excited over the prospect of Robert being a male Christine figure, but my hopes were once again dashed.
It's interesting that Robert stopped playing the piano, the instrument he's an international master of, at the time of Susanna's death and never started again, causing everyone to remark on his dearth of musical activity. We don't often see a Phantom that simply stops making music, but the timing, coinciding with the death of his girlfriend, suggests that any musical career or talent he had symbolically died with her. For most characters, perhaps a sign of his emotional attachment to her that he can no longer perform now that she's dead; for a Phantom character, perhaps also a sign that he's committed to the dark part of his personality, crossing that invisible threshold between Angel of Music and Phantom of the Opera. As soon as his mother mentions it, he moves out at light speed.
In a waystation bathroom, we discover that Robert is losing his hair, which comes out in large tufts when he combs it. As a result, we get to see the first time he gets on the express train to Badideasville onscreen, when a bum points it out (in a comfortable, we-all-get-that-eventually kind of way) and is nearly killed by Robert suddenly rushing him and beating his face repeatedly into the tile floor. His reaction to the physical change, and a brief earlier scene in which Datti opines that the killer probably murdered the doctor in order to hide something she knew, both point pretty strongly toward the idea that Robert Has a Problem.
Now that the cards are on the table about Robert's murderous capabilities, we're treated to the entire flashback of the doctor's death scene, filling in the missing pieces and motives. She told him that, after completing her tests, she was certain he had a very rare disease and that there was unfortunately no cure. This disease is not named, and the only descriptions we get of it are that it usually occurs in children rather than adults and that it may attack the braincells (thus giving him a reason to get progressively more unstable over the course of the movie), which describes a ton of diseases and doesn't really give us very many clues. Datti's suspicion that she was killed to prevent her from telling anyone about the disease is borne out when he cuts her down after she mentions that she'll be discussing his extraordinarily rare case with a specialist at an upcoming medical conference.
I'm a huge fan of this development, because the idea of disease as the Phantom's deformity is an interesting one that can go a ton of different ways and explore whole forests of possible ideas and symbols. We've all been in those conversations where we speculate about whether or not Leroux's Erik had a disease and whether or not it was porphyria or leprosy (or are those conversations just me?), but this is the first adaptation of the story yet to actually commit to the idea of the Phantom suffering from a physical disease. Such an approach puts the treatment of those with health problems in our society under a stark and unflattering spotlight, both lingering on the visceral horror that people instinctively feel toward the sick and ruthlessly pointing out how inhumane and marginalizing the treatment of the ill, who can hardly help their condition and are no less valuable as human beings, often is. Just as the original Erik was shunned for his appearance, something outside his control, so those with serious diseases are often shunned and mistreated by society at large, something this movie is not going to let you forget any time soon.
While there are very few living people with this disease in the world - eight total, according to the new set of doctors that Robert decides to go to after realizing that he's deteriorating faster now, and all children - one of them lives fairly nearby, and Robert makes a day trip out to see the kid. The murders have been all well and good so far in this movie, but hands down the most absolutely terrifying moment of this film is when Robert comes face to face with his fellow disease-sufferer. Deodato does an excellent job of the suspense, letting Robert's (and our) first view of the child be of him on a swingset partially obscured by trees, so that we only get enough flashes of him to realize that something is dreadfully wrong before we're hit with the full view. It's effectively creepy (even the sound of the swingset is creepy, something I made much worse by replaying it a zillion times trying to freeze on the frame I wanted) and manages to evoke both loathing and horrified pity almost immediately.
I'm including a screenshot, which I don't normally do, but I think it's important here for context. Here's the first real look we get at this little boy, which is a punch in the face to Robert that everyone in the audience can feel, too:
My god. If that isn't a miniature Lon Chaney as the Phantom, I'll eat all of John's hats.
Robert and the body regard one another briefly, but soon enough his caretaker/parent/nanny comes to retrieve him and Robert is left standing out on a road in the middle of nowhere, contemplating the fact that he's just seen the bleakest possible future for himself and there's no turning back.
It's now obvious, from the boy's appearance, Robert's hair loss and the side comments of various other characters about Robert losing his youthful boyishness, that he has some form of progeria, a term that applies to several very rare diseases that in essence cause their sufferers to age at an incredibly rapid rate. The specific disease will be revealed later, but I have to detour again now, because holy cow, I love this! Not only are we examining all the ways that our society mistreats the ill - looking at specific uglinesses, if you will, rather than the general idea of an "ugly" or scarred face - but we're also now getting a double-whammy with the introduction of the idea of society's backlash against old age. The worship of youth and beauty and the horror of the old and wrinkled permeates our imagery everywhere, and, just as the original Erik was an outcast thanks to his terrible face, so are the elderly often made outcasts in their own society, considered undesirable or stupid, pushed out of polite company, regarded as fossils or forgotten so they don't get in the way of the lives of the young. Either approach to a Phantom deformity, disease or old age, is brilliant; together, I want to kiss whomever pitched this.
And it's more than that, too; in a very direct way, Robert's deterioration is exactly the same as Erik's, and the reasons they are hated the same as well. Erik, who appeared skeletal and skull-like, was a figure of terror and loathing because he embodied death; he was the inescapable skeleton beneath the skin of all living things, the reminder that no matter who you are or what you feel, you will eventually die and rot yourself. His very existence was terrifying and nauseating for all other people, because one of the foundations of human mortality is the ability to forget about it, to live life without worrying about death, and Erik destroys that comfortable illusion simply by bringing the grave with him wherever he goes. Robert does exactly the same thing; he may not be a skeleton, but the vision of decrepit advanced age provides the same function of shocking and horrifying those who are doing their best to not realize that the same is in store for them, of predicting the stark future for everyone who sees him. The fact that Robert is in fact not old makes it an even more brutal image, not just telling others around him that they'll grow old someday but that anyone can grow old at any time, that there are no guarantees, that even at this moment they might be wrinkling and sagging and spiralling toward their deaths. Both characters represent the inevitability of death and decay, the fact that no human can escape them in the end, and thus they engender immediate and overwhelming fear and horror in their fellow men.
All that would probably be enough to make Robert go insane even if the disease weren't already affecting his mind, so it's no surprise that he's extremely unhinged after this final confirmation of the rapidly-approaching end of his life. As a horrible cherry on this sundae of sadness and depression, he discovers upon calling Helene for the first time in several months that she's pregnant with his child. She's happy about this development, which makes a suitably gut-wrenching contrast with the slack horror on his face on the other end of the phone line. We've seen the idea of the Phantom being afraid to have offspring in a few previous derivative works, most notably the 1989 Vale Allen novel, but here it's given very real, very horrible punch thanks to Robert having just seen firsthand what the disease he suffers does to children.
Robert's response is to attempt to kill Helene to prevent her from carrying the baby to term, but his health is beginning to fail and a passerby manages to catch him in the act and save her. Helene has skin under her fingernails from the attack, but the police are baffled because their forensic evidence (be gentle with them, they're working with 1980s Italian crime techniques) indicates that the perpetrator was an older man around 50, thus destroying Datti's current (and correct!) theory about Robert being behind it all. It's perhaps extra damning for Robert that Helene did not recognize him under the effects of the disease, and therefore can't identify him (although I wish the age makeup on Robert had been heavier, because I couldn't as an audience member understand how she didn't recognize his still fairly normal-looking face).
There's a lot of fun Italian symbolism floating around this part of the movie. In one shot, Robert leans dispiritedly against several replicas of Roman god-statues, which like most Roman statuary represent the pinnacle of youth and vigor and will, unlike the unfortunate antagonist of this movie, never age or die. Across town, we also get to see that the back wall of Datti's office features a large reproduction of a painting of the Archangel Michael smiting the Devil, underscoring his role as the defender of justice against the actions of the evil. And, finally, the moment we've all been waiting for arrives, and it's time for Carnivale, the annual city-wide masquerade festival of Venice.
Carnivale is a perfect setting for a Phantom story, and I'm surprised more versions haven't used it (Ashe's 1996 romance novel is the only other one I've seen so far). It takes the place of the famous masquerade ball of Leroux's novel, but since it's so large and all-encompassing, it allows the Phantom to move outside the realm of a single opera house or building and terrorize the entire city, largely immune to being caught thanks to the prevalence of disguises, revelery and debauchery aroud him. Robert, now starting to look seriously rough, dons a black cloak and a white full-faced mask, blending elements of the most popular previous versions of the Phantom, and heads out into the city undetected. It's an interesting contradiction that while the original Erik used the masquerade as an excuse to wear no mask at all, letting his face be his costume, this Phantom views it as a blessedly convenient time to hide his face without anyone remarking on it.
Robert's errand is surprisingly unpredictable - he's actually going out to meet a sex worker, one whom dialogue reveals was actually his first sexual encounter when she was a teenager and he was in his early twenties. Not only does she not recognize him, she also mocks his ugliness and attempts to be familiar with her and refuses to sleep with him, which leads to him predictably murdering her with stabbings a few minutes later (alas, her blood looks a lot like paint in this shot - someone in the effects department blew their entire wad on Susanna's death earlier). I'm not sure the flashback sex scenes to when they were both younger were really necessary; it does help contrast his previous youth with his current state, but it went on too long. Enjoy the boobies, everybody, because they're only here to pander to you and sexualize the murder victim. But it's still pretty great to see an early version of the echoing Phantom-and-sex-worker theme we'll see in a lot of other films and books later, and her rejection of him certainly cements him in the traditional Phantom role of lower than even the lowest echelons of normal human society.
York delivers a fantastically dynamic scene here; it's mostly internal, but still very well-done as he is terrified of his own actions, remorseful over what he's done and both hates his behavior but knows he won't be able to stop himself. It's an interesting vision of a person who is fully aware that they're going insane but can't do anything about it, and his immediate response - to visit a nearby priest who also happens to be a childhood friend of his - is both a cry for help and a desperate attempt to hold onto control he knows is slipping away. While this scene would be a lot more moving if we had ever seen the priest have any kind of pre-existing relationship with him, it's still powerful and raises great questions about what a Phantom with a terminal disease might consider the most important goals of his dwindling life. His plaintive plea to the priest, "Absolve me - not as a priest, but a friend," suggests that he values the feelings of his fellow men much more than those of a distant God, against whom he rails, like Erik, for inflicting this cruel fate upon him.
Apparently his confessional trip gives Robert the wherewithal to hold it together for a little while, because we now make a time jump forward; Helene is due to have her baby in two months, and Robert is starting to look like death only slightly warmed over. I was struck at this point by how much we now seemed to be right on the point of the original Phantom story's events, and how much the beginning of the movie could almost be considered a prequel instead of a retelling, giving the backstory and reasons behind the Phantom's descent into madness. Robert has crossed the threshold into fully pitiable now, limping around public parks unrecognized and uncomfortable with the demands of age, with his only friend a mangy, half-blind old stray dog he finds and takes home with him. Although I often complain about the idea of animals used to sympathize the Phantom character, here the dog is rather an external symbol for Robert himself, and he acknowledges it by talking to the canine, soliloquizing over how he must have been cute as a puppy but has now grown old, implying that only the young are loved and that the old and infirm are discarded, just like the two of them.
Despite the audience sympathy for his plight, Robert is still completely horrifyingly violent and murderous, so we can't really hope for anything but a swift death for him as soon as possible. His gentle, sad discussion with the dog turns quickly into a coldly furious rant about his hatred for all the rest of humanity - at the young for having what was taken away from him, and at the old for having had their youth and moved through it naturally.
I have to assume that this brain fever also gives Robert some kind of unexplained psychic powers (or maybe this is that prognostication thing again?), because it's the only way I can account for his ability to always know exactly where Datti is for the purpose of making creepy phone calls to him. This isn't the age of cell phones yet, but still Robert always rings the correct landline. In one scene, he calls him while he's having lunch at a freaking diner - what, is Robert literally right down the street staring at him, and if so, shouldn't Datti get on that, stat?
Robert's phone pranking, while it continues to be appropriately creepy and threatening toward Datti and his daughter Gloria, actually takes on an almost poignant desperation here; he very baldly tells Datti that he's intentionally giving him the opportunity to catch him, even to the point of giving him directions to the next scene of the crime. While Datti, of course, thinks this is more megalomaniacal serial killer behavior, the audience who has just seen Robert's increasingly desperate struggle with his own abhorrent actions is moved effectively to pity by the realization that he genuinely does want to be caught. Robert is no longer capable of controlling his own actions, so he's doing the only thing his crazed mind can think of to stop himself - getting Datti, an outside force, to do it for him. There's also more than a little bit of an undercurrent of the need to be recognized in this behavior, too, which is classic for serial killers but especially meaningful for Robert; if Datti is devoting all his time to catching him, it means that Robert, increasingly quickly slipping away from the world, must still be important to it in some way and relevant to the universe, rather than being mere dying human detritus.
It's interesting to speculate about Datti's role here, too; while his protective role in his attempts to save Gloria and Helene give him more than a little bit of the flavor of a Raoul character, there are marked connections to the daroga of Leroux's novel as well, who was likewise a law enforcement authority figure trying to stop his dangerous suspect from killing again and who lacks the romantic connection that Raoul has to the victims. The combination of the two is a trend in Phantom films, starting with the police-force Raoul of the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, and I suspect it's because of a movement toward seeing dashing law enforcement officers as the epitome of a romanticized male figure. It's also a natural outgrowth of the original Raoul's status as a military officer to put him under the umbrella of the law.
Unlike most Phantoms, Robert is unmasked almost this entire film; the only time he really wears one is during the Carnivale sequence, while the rest of the time the ravages of the disease are shown in increasingly gruesome detail. Not only is it an interesting statement about the nature of this particular deformity - age, unlike a facial injury or birth defect, cannot be hidden behind convenient articles of clothing - but it also suggests a metaphor of youth itself as a mask, one that Robert sowly loses over the course of the film. If the horrors of age are the true eventual face of all people, then the young, beautiful flesh they wear early in life is only a mask that hides the truth.
Sigh. The police surround the park where Robert is supposed to show up, but they don't recognize him hanging out on a park bench with another old geezer, and thanks to a chain of unconvincing events, one female cop's partner wanders off to check something and Robert slashes her throat in his absence. It's not one of the movie's better scenes; not only does it not make sense for the woman not to have shot him when she's holding a gun, seriously, right now, but there's that darn giallo sensibility toward women again. Out of all the ninety kerbillion male cops hanging out around here, he goes and kills the one attractive young female one, literally entirely because it's meant to be titillating for the audience.
The whole scene seriously makes the Venetian police force look like something that might have come out of a series of clown cars, but finally they get their shit together and arrest everyone in the park, taking them back to a tank so that Helene can try to identify her attacker. It's finally a smart move, because they know that the killer must have been there... but Datti, in a move I assume is written purely to prolong the plot, ruins everything by pointing out which people in the crowd are obviously too old or young to be the culprit and just dismissing them before Helene even arrives. Which, of course, includes the aged Robert, who wanders out of the police station under his own power. As the audience, I was about as bummed as he obviously was.
By this point, I had started feeling like the movie was oppressively long. It's not, really, only about two hours, but the pacing is inconsistent and the coincidences keeping Robert on the loose started adding up to more running time without much more action, just rehashed murders and police frustration. Robert apparently agrees, because he calls Datti again and gives his exact current location in an attempt to get caught again, and Datti still fails to catch him. He does run around screaming angrily in the street a lot, though, which understandably leads to his mild nervous breakdown and resignation from his position.
Frankly, I'm pretty surprised at Robert by this point in the movie. I'm surprised he's even still alive, for one thing - he looks terrible, the disease has had quite a while to do a number on him, and yet he's still spry enough to run around cutting throats and eluding police pursuit. I'm also surprised that he's still mentally together enough to play mind games with Datti over the phone. I was kind of expecting him to be babbling incoherently while vomiting blood by this time, to be honest.
Instead, he babbles to his dog, but as usual he delivers some thoughtful moments in doing so, played up well by York's ability to be subtly emotional even under a ton of aging cosmetic cake on his face. I love this line: "Look at you - you're lucky. You don't know you have to die. But a man - when does he think of such things? Only when he's old. And afraid." Robert's embodiment of the fear of inevitable age and death is not doing him any favors, even if it's usually everyone else screaming about it.
Back at the ranch, Datti just can't keep his nose out of the case despite quitting (and sensibly sending his daughter to stay out of town for a while, thus saving her from being murdered! Yay!) and, with the help of his medical forensics dude, finally figures out what's going on. The scientist eventually manages to come up with progeria as a wild, one-in-a-million chance that could explain the various ages the perpetrator appears to be, and there's some excellently clever wordplay in the dead doctor's appointment book that spelled the situation out exactly but was largely invisible to anyone not trained in weird medical syndromes. The specific form of progeria that afflicts Robert is also finally named here: Hutchinson-Gilford Syndrome. The baffled medical staff can't get us all the answers - "I guess it must have been dormant in his childhood and then randomly activated as an adult, and that's why he has it even though only children do?" is the best we're going to get - but all the symptoms match and everyone is suprisingly on point about the scientific validity of the condition. Of all the movies to be factual about their rare plot-device illness, right?
In the final, climactic scene, Robert calls Helene to tell her he's coming home and shows up at her house, where he convinces her to let the creepy old hobo he has become in by claiming the "real" Robert sent him. I need to give a bunch of kudos to the makeup department here; I wasn't expecting much considering this movie's budget level, but his appearance is surprisingly convincing.
Props also to the lighting department and camerapeople, who use shadow to excellent effect to both set mood and avoid having to linger on possibly low-budget makeup in too much detail. A particularly powerful shot in this scene is that of Robert, old and ravaged, sitting silhouetted in front of a television playing footage of his young, handsome self playing his last triumphant concert, forcibly reminding us and him of what he once was and how easily and arbitrarily that person was lost.
It takes a lot of desperate convincing and denial, but Helene finally figures out that she is actually talking to Robert, whose behavior in this scene is classic for a Phantom begging his Christine to love him for himself in spite of his ugliness. His surprising tenderness toward her is at odds with his determination to kill her, which he explains is not because he wants to hurt her but because he's overwhelmingly obsessed with making sure the baby, now only a month or so from birth, is never born. It's terrifying for poor Helene, of course, and gut-wrenching for the audience as he slowly pursues her around the house, weeping that he never wanted to hurt her and would have waited for the baby to be born so he could kill it without harming her, but now doesn't dare because he doesn't think he'll survive long enough to see it enter the world. His repeated, dehumanizing line, "It could turn into something like me," is illuminating for his motives; he wants to stop this baby from existing, not because he wants to "save" it from his fate but because he wants to remove what he considers a monster from the world, a monster that he finds as abhorrent as he now finds himself.
Thankfully, Robert is by now so decrepit that Helene manages to fend him off long enough for Datti to arrive, at which point Robert attempts to cut and run but only gets as far as the garden before his failing health catches up with him. His despair over his failure to prevent his child's birth is so genuine that we almost - almost - feel sorry for him. Even in his dying after attempted murder, he manages to have more than a little of the air of the tragic genius, dying with his life's work unfinished. His death scene is sad and final, and his gratefulness that the misery is finally over is even more powerful than his genuinely regretful speech to Datti about his desperate attempts to get the police to stop him."They say death is God's cruelest joke... but not for me," is his final line, and it sums up both his and Erik's lives with a sad little bow on top.
It's actually an interesting departure from the usual giallo style here for Robert to die a gentle, "natural" death; the genre usually demands the murderer to be spectacularly punished for his misbehavior, but Robert ends not with a bang but with a whimper. I'm not going to complain, especially since the overtones of Erik's death in Leroux's novel, complete with his love saved from him by his gallant police friend, are strong and moving.
Okay, so not everything made any sense in there. There were bad paint effects and terrible dubbing tracks and random murder of women for "sexiness" purposes (ick) and samurai. But it was still head and shoulders above many other film attempts at the Phantom's story, and the interesting directions it took made it impossible for me not to enjoy it, clownish police force and all. There's a lot packed into this obscure little movie, but all of it is thought-provoking.