Fatal Frames (1996)

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Also Known As: Fatal Frames - Fotogrammi Mortali, Suspiria 2000
Director: Al Festa
Starring: Stefania Stella, Rick Gianasi, David Warbeck, Ugo Pagliai, Alida Valli, Donald Pleasence
Running Time: 125 min
Release Date: 1996
Country of Origin: Italy

Recently I stumbled across an old documentary on YouTube called Eurotika! a 12 part series that was shown on Channel 4 back in 1999 about European erotica, exploitation and horror films from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Of course I couldn't resist watching the one titled "Blood and Black Lace: A Short History of the Italian Horror Film" which you can watch for yourself here. The documentary was average and I was more excited to see Dagmar Lassander post 1980s than hearing the same old spiel about the key players in the industry. However, one of the talking heads caught my attention - his name was Al Festa - a name I'd never heard of which struck me as odd because I'm a total anoraak when it comes to Italian horror. A poster hung behind him that looked gloriously eighties -seductive floating eyes, scrawling joined up font - I needed to know more! Luckily Al Festa couldn't resist talking about the Italian horror film without plugging his own work and thus I learned about Fatal Frames, a 1996 giallo and homage to the great Italian exploitation of the 60s and 70s. As anyone reading this will probably know, a 90s giallo is a rarity and the ones that do exist are usually very low budget so it was a pleasent surprise (see what I did there with the spelling because of Donald Pleasence? Urgh never mind) to find a 90s giallo style film that seemed to have a decent budget. So I couldn't resist, I purchased Synapse's DVD release of Fatal Frames and prepared myself for a cheesy 90s take on the giallo.

Fatal Frames is pure, unadulterated shlock. It's cheesy, it's laughable and makes you yelp in horror for all the wrong reasons. The film's downfall or source of comedy if you will, is the horrendous acting, that in particular of Stefania Stella (Festa's wife) who uses the film as a vehicle for her "assets" (when viewing the trailer for this on YouTube an advert for a boob job clinic came up) and pouts, romps and postures through every scene. Her line delivery is frankly abysmal and every bit of dialogue is delivered in the same monotonous tone without a hint of expression. The film is a whopping 2 hours and 5 minutes long and could easily have been shorter if it wasn't for Festa inserting mini music videos of his wife every 20 minutes. Now there's been some harsh things said about Stefania Stella's "look" in this film so I'm not going to add fuel to the fire - all I'm going to say is, in my mind, she bares a remarkable similarity to Lord Ilay aka the guy on all Royal Bank of Scotland notes. Judge for yourself...
Fatal Frames stars Stefania Stella as... Stefania Stella, only this version of Stefania is an Italian singing sensation adored by legions of fans across Italy. However, Stella has a problem, she's not yet cracked the lucrative American market that's sure to make her an international star! Luckily her agent enlists the help of music video director extraordinaire, Alex, to help make a lavish video that is sure to win over the yanks. Alex is your typical sleazy looking "heartthrob" of the early 90s and his acting is piss poor to put it mildly. Straight away you know the film is going to be a complete joke when the film introduces us to Alex, a man reluctant to leave New York because the blood splattered carpet in his living room is the only reminder of his dead wife. Apparently nothing conveys happy memories of your loved one more than the spattering of their blood from a gruesome machete decapitation. Unluckily for us, Alex takes Stella's agent up on his offer and flies off to Rome. Before Alex can even leave the airport car park we're treated to a drunken tramp recoiling in horror as he touches Alex's hand - that's what you get for trying to get handouts for your J&B addiction! This sequence is obviously supposed to be a sign of troubles ahead which hit at lightening speed with all the subtlety of a Dario Argento set piece. We're treated to some scenes of Alex meeting Stefania and then one of her dancers which are chock full of awful dialogue before things start to "pick up". In what I first thought was a bizarre dream sequence, Alex sees Stella's backing dancer (I genuinely can't be fucked finding out her name) running through the streets of Rome begging Alex to follow her in a sequence that resembles an 80s hair metal video, gauzy dress included. Sadly for our hero, he is trapped behind a gate (???) and forced to watch twinkle toes get butchered by a machete wielding, masked fiend. After our machete wielding psycho is finished with his victim he films her butchered body on his handheld and then dashes off. It's only when the video is passed onto the police that the murderer becomes known as the "videotape killer". Unfortunately Alex is now caught up in the investigation and hardass Commissioner Bonelli, played by David Warbeck, wants answers!

The film becomes painfully repetitive at this point as we are treated to more murders carried out in exactly the same way including the improbable scenario of Alex always being there behind bars watching in horror. Interspersed between the murders are boring talkie scenes with Commissioner Bonelli, Commissioner Valenti and FBI agent Professor Robinson (played by Donald Pleasence) who has become involved in the videotape killer case due to a link with previous murders in New York (who else is from NY... I wonder!) We're also treated to more delightful bits of filming for the greatest music video of all time and the budding romance between Stella and Rybek whose relationship has all the heat of a wet flannel. I'm still traumatised by their sex scene which involved some pretty furious humping in front of videos of Stella because let's face it, who can get moist without being surrounded by video footage of themselves.

Prior to Fatal Frames, Al Festa made his name making music videos and by god it shows in this movie. Everything in this film is staged like an 80s music video, I for one have never seen so much dry ice utilised in a film - it is literally everywhere, indoor and out. This isn't necessarily a criticism, sometimes it's just laid on too thick and is unnecessary but on the whole it does give Fatal Frames a distinctive look. Admittedly, it is hard to make Rome landmarks like the Trevi fountain and the Colosseum look like shit but Festa makes historic Rome shine by casting it in a striking lighting scheme of oranges, reds and blues which Dario himself would be proud of. The exterior nighttime shots in this film are visually great however the daytime scenes look flat and dull. Festa's visual flare only seems to apply to night shooting where he can make his world look over the top like in a music video. Overall, despite some lacklustre daytime shooting, the cinematography is of a good standard and Festa and cinematographer, Giuseppe Bernardini, work well together creating a film that, for the most part, looks fairly high budget especially when you consider the time period it was made in. 

The visual flare displayed in the nighttime scenes is a highlight of Fatal Frames and to give credit where credit is due, the film contains some other positives, primarily the impressive decapitations by Steve Johnson which look suitably gruesome. The special effects are pretty decent throughout the film but if I'm going to nitpick, the murder set pieces could have been a little bit more varied and inventive. As mentioned previously, the acting (if you could call it that) is pretty piss poor on the whole but the supporting characters are well done. It was great to see veterans of the Italian film industry such as Alida Valli, David Warbeck, Rossana Brazzi and Ugo Pagliai feature in the cast and they were all a welcome distraction from the film's horrendous leads. Finally, despite the film's questionable plot there are some interesting elements - I thoroughly enjoyed the parts of the film about a mysterious painting and a blind psychic (played by Valli) but unfortunately, Festa didn't really build on these ideas and instead focused on his wife's tits. If this wasn't such a vanity project, it maybe could have been more of a solid return to the giallo.

Now I'm fully aware this review, if I could even call it that, is becoming massive but there's just so many things to say about this heinous film that might save you forking out your hard earned money and wasting your precious time. So here's a list of just some of the things I hated about Fatal Frames;

1. The sound effects: everybody's shoes sound like they are coated in velcro
2. The zooms: my god I have never seen so many zooms in a film and so poorly used (actually scrap that, Jess Franco still holds that honour)
3. Characters talking over unrelated scenes: you'll hear characters having a conversation but something completely different is going on visually.
4. The dialogue: Here's perhaps my favourite line from the film "reportedly carved in slices like roast beef" "I'm going to arrest you if you don't curb your language"
5. The number of greasy Italian ponytails in every scene.
6. The awful tough guy "I don't take shit from anyone" bravado of Alex. One of my "favourite scenes" is an ~intense~ meeting between Alex, Robinson and Valenti where Alex goes off on one and starts effing and jeffing at everyone and it's so incredibly awful and has to be seen to be believed. Sadly Robinson doesn't beat him to death there and then with his cane although admittedly he tries.

Now I know what you're thinking, I was thinking it too - how the hell did this film get made? Well the film went into production in 1993 and wasn't completed till 1996 due to funding issues - quelle fucking surprise. Sadly Donald Pleasence died during this period which resulted in a hasty, yet fantastic exit for his character but also some awful dubbing. I imagine Al Festa had to provide a lot of the funding himself for Fatal Frames considering the state of the Italian film industry in the 90s. I guess it's to his credit that he managed to make a decent looking film, full of Italian film veterans and the great work of special effects artist, Steve Johnson, in this volatile period. It's just a shame that awful casting and a dodgy script drags it down. Like I said previously, it's rare to see a film in this genre for the 90s never mind one of this "quality".

Fatal Frames will make you question you love of the giallo. How could a homage to the genre go so horribly wrong? There are some good ideas in the film but it's ultimately bogged down by poor acting and self indulgence on the part of Festa and Stella (who also served as producer). Despite my undying hatred for the film I would encourage any fan of the genre to check it out because it's absolutely hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Fatal Frames - never has a film name been so apt.

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