BluRay/DVD Reviews

FATAL FRAMES

By • Oct 31st, 2000 •

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(Synapse Films) 1996
125 mins / Color / Deleted scenes
‘Making of’ featurette

One thing the narrative makes clear is that you can be a homicidal maniac and still make decent music videos.

Back in the 70’s Harry Hurwitz was hired by ‘actress’ Nai Bonet to direct her vanity project, NOCTURNA. I visited the set, watching John Carradine crawl out of a coffin. Harry was not a director who could make something interesting out of bad material. So that film stank and disappeared from sight.

Stefania Stella’s FATAL FRAMES (she produced as well as starred in) is a different but related case in point. In what is clearly a vanity project, the sex kitten can’t act well, and looks so much at times like Sulka the She-male that I figured her true sexuality was going to figure into the film’s reveal. Fooled me, though not, I guess, intentionally. Off narrative, in the retro docs and commentary, she comes off better, displaying the spunky charm that Charo is known for.

As the film starts we hear Bernard Hermann being aped in the lead-in cue, and we know we’re in for a ride across familiar terrain. There’s nothing radically new about the plot. Giallo-inspired machete murders, video-taped by the killer. Who’s responsible? We’ll know in a few hours.

It isn’t long before Dario Argento’s brand of music insinuates itself, not to mention the maestro’s way with lighting, horror montage, and inept direction of purely dramatic or connecting scenes. Visually – lighting and color – it’s style, style, style, with little relationship to substance. (The narrative is shrouded in extreme mood photography which looks super, if inappropriate, but the three music video sequences are grainy and washed out. What’s up with that?) This visual bravado is occasionally quite lovely – emphasis on the word ‘occasionally’. Director Festa exercises one major conceit in regard to the man he’s ripping off: FATAL FRAMES runs two hours and five minutes. There’s an unmistakable audacity in keeping the film going to a length, breaking the two hour mark, that Argento only attained once. (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE – 98 mins; THE CAT O’NINE TAILS – 112 mins; SUSPIRIA – 98 mins: TENEBRE – 101 mins; INFERNO –106 mins; PNENOMENA – 110 mins; DEEP RED – 126 mins; OPERA – 107 MINS; PHANTOM OF THE OPERA – 100 mins; SLEEPLESS – 107 mins. When Argento got George Romero’s cut of DAWN OF THE DEAD, to do with contractually as he pleased, he even trimmed that back from 128 to 113 mins. ) The results? Very weird indeed. FATAL FRAMES never bogs down, still you can feel the malingering weight of those extra minutes.

Festa adheres to Argento’s worst skills as well. Terrible dubbing, odd irrhythmic editing in dialogue scenes. As for the murders, despite the presence of School of Visual Arts alum Joel Harlow on the make-up team, the machete murders are redundant and less effective then Dario’s orgasms of blood. The ‘fatal frames’ footage, shot at each murder with the accompanying loud sound of the camera running, is jarring and unpleasant in a non-aesthetic way – an idea that wears thin almost immediately. Not to mention that a video camera wouldn’t make that sound – a still camera or movie camera might.

It was chilling to see Donald Pleasance and Rossano Brazzi play out their last roles here. Pleasance seemed incapacitated, perhaps by a stroke. I’m not sure he was ever really speaking. In the telephone booth, pulling a PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, we’re actually shown an actor in a Donald Pleasance mask – and the musical cue is straight out of HALLOWEEN.

And I didn’t know what character Brazzi played until I checked the bios and his photo came up, so ravaged away were his good looks. (To see him younger and ruining a passable adventure film, check out MGM’s LEGEND OF THE LOST. I don’t think it was entirely Brazzi’s fault – the script made him do and say some pretty annoying and offputting things.)

Tell me, do I seem like I’m trashing this thing? I don’t know, it might actually be worth owning. Festa’s background in over a hundred music video’s pays off handsomely – the film throttles forward in spurts, but when it moves, his music-head keeps it lyrical.

The locations are sumptuous and impressive. Fellini’s location manager couldn’t have done better. The film shows off Rome beautifully. The Trevi Fountain is an homage to LA DOLCE VITA, with Stella as Ekberg. (Check out WE ALL LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH, not yet on DVD, for an even more remarkable use of the Roman landmark.)

And frankly I’m curious to see more of both Festa’s and Stella’s work. Though she’s a little hard to look at with her latex face and collagen-like lips, she’s also endearing in her delivery of dialogue. Both she and her director appear on the commentary track, game to do their best for Synapse. She is particularly amusing, for instance, when she refers to Linnea Quigley: “We are very friend. We write letters on each other. We love the animals. Cats and everything, you know.”


Cast:
Stefania Stella
Rick Gianasi
Leo Daniel
Donald Pleasence
Angus Scrimm
Linnea Quigley
David Warbeck

Credits:
Directed by Al Festa.
Screenplay by Alessandro Monese.
Music and songs by Al Festa.
Director of Photography Giuseppe Berardini.
Editor Maurizio Baglivo.
Audio commentary with Al Festa and Stefania Stella.

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