Ruggero Deodato. A name that will be synonymous with the more brutal end of Italian cinema because of both Cannibal Holocaust and The House on the Edge of the Park. It is a shame then, that his little known work, such as Phantom of Death, continue to go unnoticed by the majority of the horror community. To add to the matter, the film stars Michael York, Donald Pleasence and Edwige Fenech, so it certainly isn't a movie full of unknown actors and actresses, and it certainly doesn't skimp on the almost grandiose bloodletting and operatic murder scenes, so really, I have no idea why this movie isn't known as much as Deodato's classic video nasties.
Michael York plays Robert Dominici, a concert pianist who is lucky enough to have the pick of two very beautiful women, whose names are Helene (Edwige Fenech) and Susanna (Mapi Galan). It is not until Susanna meets a bloody end as she travels to see Robert, that Helene makes her move for him. We then discover that Robert suffers from a condition that makes him age uncontrollably and may very well have turned him into a killer. It is up to Inspector Datti (Donald Pleasence) to find out who the killer is, and put a stop to the murders once and for all.
One of the many complaints I have heard thrown at this film is that you find out too early in the film who the killer is. I feel this is nothing but nitpicking. It certainly didn't effect my enjoyment of the movie in any way. At it's most basic, the story is about growing old gracefully, and attempting to enjoy life as much as possible. As Robert begins to fall foul of his illness, he will not succumb to growing old, instead he becomes filled with anger and a hatred of his condition, fighting it as only he knows how.
The movie is very character driven, with the scenes featuring the three main stars are filled with emotion and fear. While some call it a Giallo, many of the ingredients that make a Giallo are missing, such as the mysterious killer, the past 'evil' that made the killer kill etc, so I myself, if a label needed to be given, would call this a slasher movie. By halfway through the film, any questions you may have had are answered, and we are taken on a journey through madness and despair that works more often than it doesn't.
Phantom of Death attempts to say that when the human condition is effected by an illness, mental changes will take place, and that it is a good thing to try and live life while you have the chance, because that opportunity could be snatched away from you at any time. The film is well photographed, and moves along at a rather leisurely pace. The movie certainly makes a genuine attempt to make the viewers feel and care for the characters, and amazingly it works.
Deodato's manipulation of the viewers also works incredibly well, as for the first 30 or so minutes, the movie sets up a character as a reluctant hero, only for Deodato to pull the rug out from underneath the audience and let them find out that this person who has been made to look like our hero is the killer. It did come as a rather large surprise to me.
Phantom of Death is filled with great characterization, titillating nudity, artery spurting gore (although not featuring near the cruelty of Cannibal Holocaust) and a genuinely creepy atmosphere throughout. That it also features a subtext questioning the very existence of God, his cruelty and our own mortality, is an achievement Deodato should be proud of. While the film may certainly seem very simplistic on first viewing, on subsequent viewings, things become clearer, and the films deeper messages become apparent, which make this a slasher film not only with a deep emotional message, but one that people can enjoy again and again.