PLOT OF FEAR: The Whiplash Thrill Of Italian Genre-Blurring

One of the joys of watching Euro-cult fare is the high factor of unpredictability.  Just because a European movie presents itself as an action film or horror film doesn’t mean it’s always going to stay squarely in that genre box.  Italian filmmakers in particular love this kind of genre-blurring.  If you need an example, look at the spaghetti western. These films aren’t just sagebrush and shootouts: under that heading there are political westerns, gothic horror westerns, comedy westerns, etc.  Simply put, the Italians were never afraid to let genres collide if it could bring a fresh angle to familiar elements.

Plot Of Fear is an interesting example of Italian genre-blending tendencies in overdrive.  Superficially, the plot is a typical Italian giallo setup – a killer is bumping off citizens of high standing in creatively cruel ways, leaving an illustration from the twisted children’s classic Struwwelpeter that corresponds to each murder at the site of each killing.  Inspector Lomenzo (Michele Placido) investigates the killings at the behest of his Chief Inspector (Tom Skerritt) but the suspects pile up as quickly as the murders.

As the path of killings lead Lomenzo in different directions, one thing becomes apparent: the murders have something to do with the mysterious death of a prostitute who was in attendance at a gathering of wealthy folks with an interest in saving endangered animals… and playing kinky sex games.  It seems that the former owner of the house where these people gathered, Hoffman (John Steiner), might not have died like sources claimed he had.  Other figures of suspicion include Riccio (Eli Wallach), the head of a shady private security organization and Jeanne (Corinne Clery), who also happens to be Lomenzo’s current romantic interest…

However, a simple listing of the plot elements only captures part of what this movie is all about.  The script, written by Enrico Oldoini and Bernardino Zapponi from a story by director Paolo Cavara, incorporates other genres and themes into its giallo-esque framework.  Lomenzo’s work incorporates a certain amount of poliziotteschi elements, including a dramatic foot chase through traffic that culminates in a punch-up confrontation.  There’s also a surprising amount of farcical humor, as Lomenzo tends to get exasperated and neurotic about his work and domestic situations.  In fact, his investigation is played for laughs as often as it is for suspense.

And Cavara’s direction adds further genre twists.  Euro-cult fans will be happy to know he doesn’t shy away from the sexy aspects of the high society setting, weaving in a few artfully shot sex scenes.  Without getting into spoilers, it is also worth noting that the final reveal of the culprit takes the film into an area of darkly witty social satire not too far removed from the work of Lina Wertmuller or Elio Petri’s Investigation Of A Citizen Under Suspicion.  The affect this ending achieves is literate and quietly disturbing all at once.

This time of genre-blending could quickly become annoying if the craftsmanship was off but thankfully Plot Of Fear manages to avoid that.  The script’s mystery is interesting and unfolds in a way that maintains suspense up the very end.  Better yet, the comedic bits are genuinely funny, particularly a bit where Lomenzo tries to interrogate a sexy yet very unhelpful apartment tenant.  Cavara’s direction keeps the whiplash-inducing variety of tones balanced and unifies the film’s disparate moods with a nice visual gloss via cinematography from giallo regular Franco Di Giacomo.  Daniele Patucchi contributes an intriguing score to top this style off that blends discordant Morricone-style avant-jazz with gentler lounge music melodies.

Plot Of Fear further benefits from an interesting, eclectic cast.  Placido has to carry the film as the detective hero and he’s at home with both the tough-guy stuff as well as the humor, creating a hero who wears his neuroses on his sleeve so he can disarm the people he is investigating.  As anyone who has seen The Story Of O knows, Clery is eye-candy of the first order.  That part of her appeal is used to great effect here but she also shows a nice knack for deadpan comic timing.  Skerritt and Steiner acquit themselves nicely in smaller roles but it is Wallach who is the scene-stealer amongst the guest stars, grinning like a Cheshire cat as he verbally dodges and parries Lomenzo’s inquiries.

In short, Plot Of Fear impresses because it does a variety of things well and combines its odd assortment of elements into a compelling and unpredictable whole.  If you enjoy the unpredictability of Euro-cult fare, this one-of-a-kind item delivers that quality by the truckload.

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