Phantom of Death (1988)
By: Julian on May 2, 2011  | 
Shameless (UK) | All Regions, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 88 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Starring: Michael York, Edwige Fenech, Donald Pleasance, Fabio Sartor, Antonella Ponziani
Screenplay: Gianfranco Clerici, Vicenzo Mannino, Gigliola Battaglini
Country: Italy
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Ruggero Deodato is one of my favourite directors from the seventies Eurohorror Golden Era – with the powerhouse trio of Jungle Holocaust, House on the Edge of the Park and Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato firmed himself as a master of exploitation cinema. The late seventies was when Deodato shone (the three films mentioned above were all made in the late seventies, even if two of them were released in the eighties), and his work throughout the eighties ranged between above-average and lacklustre: Cut and Run was an adequate foray across the Atlantic, but material like Body Count is just spiritless, indolent fare.

Sadly, Phantom of Death is more Body Count than Cut and Run. That's not to say this is necessarily bad; just derivative and uninspiring. While this is a well-constructed thriller, the whole thing is just lifeless - at its worst, a limp imitator of far better gialli, with Deodato asleep at the wheel.

Robert Dominici (Michael York, whom all horror aficionados should immediately recognise as Basil from the Austin Powers movies) is a piano player who has hit a hurdle: a crippling illness that will eventually kill him, but not before ageing him at a rapid rate. Confronted by his mortality, Robert gives up the music and turns to murder, running riot in a perverse vengeance against the world that he is soon to leave.

The premise is decent and when it hits its strides, Gianfranco Clerici, Vicenzo Mannino and Giglioia Battaglini's screenplay presents a sympathetic Robert, a man who's clearly mad, but perhaps not by his own volition. But like almost every aspect of Phantom of Death, the screenplay is variable: clunky dialogue awkwardly delivered by the normally-inimitable Donald Pleasance and problems with pacing sadly mask Clerici et al's often decent characterisation, and a well thought-out concept. Clerici is an icon of Italian cinema – his efforts have yielded classics like Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and Fulci's New York Ripper – but he is not on form here.

Failure in execution isn't just limited to the screenplayDeodato isn't on form either. I've drawn the comparison between this and another one of his eighties efforts, Body Count, and while this movie is better, it still exhibits the very standard approach that Deodato took to his filmmaking. Deodato is a terrific director and his seventies work showed that he could often be a masterful visual stylist and adept at movie trickery, but nothing here puts that talent on show: it is just so ordinary.

With that said, there's nothing here that is particularly offensive, and Phantom of Death is certainly an entertaining, if unmemorable, effort. Deodato injects police procedural elements into this to a far greater extent than what most gialli do, giving some always-appreciated exposure to Donald Pleasance's frustrated Detective Inspector, who fields Robert's taunting calls with a stoicism that wavers only when his daughter is threatened.

York does an okay job as our antagonist but like most Italian exploitation films, Phantom of Death is peppered with unconvincing and hammy performances. But the worst thing about Phantom of Death is that the ghosts of Deodato movies past haunt it, never allowing the viewer to forget that an exceptional director is behind this decidedly unexceptional movie.
1.85:1, with 16:9 enhancement. The film is often very dark and the picture lacks depth, although I suspect this is about the best we're likely to get.
One English audio track, presented in Dolby 2.0. The swelling piano music complements the giallo theme well; Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Don't Look Now) and Natale Massara (Dressed to Kill) are responsible for the music.
Extra Features


The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
It wouldn't be right to call Phantom of Death a failure, particularly when one judges the film on its own merits, and, hard as it is, not against Ruggero Deodato's earlier output. York seems to enjoy his role as the diseased, crumbling madman, but Deodato nevertheless helms a movie that is terminally ordinary, not uninteresting and not unengaging, just nothing to distinguish it from any other ordinary, eighties Italian horror film.

Shameless Screen Entertainment, a British DVD distributor, is fast becoming a favourite of mine. Phantom of Death is one of their earlier releases, with Shameless specialising in seventies and eighties cult and horror product, both popular and little-known. This DVD is said to be the first uncut release of Phantom of Death in the UK.

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