A word of advice, don't watch FATAL FRAMES if you have the flu. I did and I was a bit delirious before I saw it. Now I'm almost completely delirious. Last night I apparently woke several times and said: “What's that over there?”. I can't say for sure, but I imagine I thought I was being stalked by Stefania Stella in a blur of spandex and ringlets (her not me). A frightening and sobering thought let me tell you…
FATAL FRAMES looks on paper to be a tribute to the giallo of the 1970s and the Italian gothic of the 1960s, but actually has more in common with examples from the dying throes of the Italian genre movie business in the 1980s such as NOTHING UNDERNEATH (1985) and Lamberto Bava's similarly wigged-out DELIRIUM (1987). However, nothing can really prepare you for the interminable (2hrs 5 mins!) mind-fuck that is Al Festa's, er, vision and love note to his wife's heaving cleavage.
As with most slashers, the murders in the giallo usually have a chrysalis in a past crime or event – and it's no different with FATAL FRAMES. A black and white flashback shows a boy forced to watch a snuff movie after he stumbles in on his father watching one. Cut then to the present day (which looks very much like an 80s rock video shot by Dario Argento), as a young woman is slashed to death by a machete wielding man in classic giallo garb in a New York backstreet. The killer then lingers over her bloody body with a video camera.
Perhaps coincidentally, Dan (Leo Daniel) – a music producer from Italy – is visiting an American video director in New York. He persuades Alex (Rick Gianasi) to come with him back to Rome to shoot a video for his girlfriend and “pop sensation” Stefania Stella (playing herself). Allegedly she is a household name in Italy (at least in this movie), and Dan needs his help for her to break the States. At first Alex is a little reluctant to go, as he explains he doesn't want to leave the bloodstain on the carpet where they are sitting (his wife was a victim of the 'video killer' and was decapitated in that very apartment). Alex says that the bloodstain is all he has left of his wife – surprisingly, Dan takes this in his stride and the promise of a hefty fee seems to do the trick to get Alex to leave his beloved stain behind.
The omens don't seem good when they land in Rome, as an elderly beggar goes boss-eyed when he glances at Alex's palm. Things don't get much better when he sees an equally scary vision of things to come as Stefania clambers out of the backseat of a waiting car, looking every inch the love child of LaToya Jackson and Jackie Stallone, with a pubic wig balanced perilously on top of what is perhaps the biggest trout pout known to mankind. More on her charms later ...
Whilst preparing to shoot the music video, a young American dancer (Veronica Logan) agrees to meet with Alex for dinner that night. However, when he turns up she is initially nowhere to be seen. Suddenly he sees her across the way surrounded in a fug of dry ice (there seems to be a lot of it in Rome), where she seems to be in distress. Instead of running towards Alex she totters off into a tunnel. Alex chases after her, but gets caught behind a metal gate where he witnesses her being hacked to death by someone in black clothes and a fedora. Has the 'video killer' claimed his first victim in Rome?
If there was ever a more blatant attempt at a star vehicle I've yet to see it. From what I understand, Stefania Stella and Al Festa were married and co-producers on FATAL FRAMES, with Festa directing and providing the music (he was a composer on a good number of Italian productions as well as a director of copious music videos). It therefore comes as no surprise that Stella is shoe-horned into almost every shot, attempting do look sultry (quite some feat as she is a dead ringer for Les Dawson going to a fancy dress party as bouncy breasted Italian 80s temptress Sabrina). Just as with Bollywood horror films, FATAL FRAMES grinds to a halt every 20 minutes, or so, for Stella to ostensibly shoot her pop video. In some kind of strange Kate Bush take on Europop, Stella frolics in front of the Colosseum or splashes herself playfully in the Trevi Fountain. All the while her breasts threaten to burst asunder and lay waste to the eternal city.
Stella is a star and you just can't take your eyes off her – but, of course, for all the wrong reasons. There's her impenetrable accent: she sounds like Don Corleone gargling with gravel whilst doing a Mae West impression; all with lips so plump and red I expect a baboon somewhere wants his butt back. An ego-trip of massive proportions, you get the impression that whilst some of the cast have their tongues firmly in their cheeks Stella seems convinced that she really is a fresh pop music ingenue – despite being of indecipherable age (anywhere between 30 and 90). This is cemented in a hilarious scene, where one character says to her with a straight face: “You're young and beautiful and have the whole of your life in front of you.”, whilst she nods sagely in agreement. You may be interested to know that she also appeared in the film SICK-O-PATHICS the same year, as – wait for it – The Gypsy of the Farts. And, no, I didn't make that up.
If Festa's talents don't lie behind the camera (and believe me they don't) then he must have one silver tongue, as he amassed a massive amount of genre talent (and, er, Stefania Stella) to appear in his film. Italian genre vet David Warbeck (probably best known for his Fulci gut-muchers of the early 1980s) perhaps has the meatiest role as a commissioner in charge of the investigation into the rash of 'video killer' murders now plaguing Rome. Warbeck looks gaunt (he died the next year), but puts in a game performance despite being hampered by some atrocious sound issues in some scenes. FATAL FRAMES also famously features the last screen appearance of Donald Pleasence (as an FBI agent), who allegedly died during filming. His distinctive voice is dubbed by someone else, which is a real shame – but a HALLOWEEN (1978) in-joke is oddly touching.
Festa also managed to somehow attract Italian screen legend Alida Valli (here playing a blind countess), who had appeared such greats as THE THIRD MAN (1949), EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960) and SUSPIRIA (1977). Festa is obviously playing homage to the latter with blue and red lights in almost every shot (and did I imagine a glimpse of Argento himself as the creepy manservant?), but, of course comes nowhere close – although, ironically, Argento seems to be veering ever closer to FATAL FRAMES territory with every subsequent project!
Apart from the Italian cast (whose reciting of English lines when it is clear it is not a language they are comfortable with makes for some seriously stilted dialogue), there is also a fun cameo by PHANTASM's Angus Scrimm as an angry ghost and an appearance by Linnea Quigley as a parapsychologist (!).
The film's ridiculous length works against it – and even when even watched as enjoyable trash (as it is much of the time), the joke is stretched paper thin after the 2 hour mark. On the plus side, apart from Stella's hilarious performance, the film does boast some attractive and evocative shots of Rome (hardly difficult to do). Then there's some impressive special effects by Steve Johnson (including some very real looking severed heads). Then, of course, there is the novel concept of the killer being given away by his hair style (or lack of)!
Of course, it would be too much to ask for a satisfactory ending – but it's at least overblown and completely ridiculous (not a first by any means in the giallo, but it pretty much rubbishes the previous 2 hours and does not make one lick of sense).
FATAL FRAMES is a mess of neon, silicone, big hair, dry ice and cheese – and is an overindulgence that is likely to leave you feeling more than a little nauseous. And remember, out there somewhere, Stefania Stella waits, watches – ready to pout.
female:8 / male:2
1) Female slashed with machete
2) Female slashed with machete
3) Female slashed with machete
4) Female slashed with machete
5) Female decapitated with machete
6) Female slashed with machete
7) Female slashed with machete
8) Male hacked with machete (dream)
9) Female slashed across throat with machete
10) Male found dead