Phantom Of Death (AKA Off Balance) is a Giallo film from Italian film maker Ruggero Deodato, the notorious director of the controversial The House On The Edge Of The Park and the legendarily infamous Cannibal Holocaust. In comparison to Ruggero Deodato’s other, more extreme works, Phantom Of Death is a very reserved film that stars English actors Michael York (Austin Powers) as Robert, a promising pianist who suffers from Progeria, and Donald Pleasance (Halloween) as Datti, an inspector who tries to stop the notorious killer who has mysteriously cropped up in the city of Rome. Phantom Of Death, like many Ruggero Deodato films that weren’t about Cannibals, wasn’t very popular upon it’s original release, and, to this day, it hasn’t gained a dedicated cult following. Also, there isn’t a lot of information that exists about this film either, so I can’t state anything about the film’s historical impact or even how the film was made. All I can state is that Phantom Of Death may be a film that isn’t very well known, but after watching it, I find that Phantom Of Death definitely stands out in the realm of Giallo cinema.
Phantom Of Death is very different to the average Giallo movie. Whilst most Giallo films follow a standard formula, that being a spate of murders and a desperate rush to find the killer, Phantom Of Death deviates from the traditional Giallo styling to tell a very unpredictable, very dramatic story with an incredibly sympathetic killer. In my opinion, I thought that the story of Phantom Of Death was very well written: it had well developed, believable characters, and it contained plenty of twists and turns that kept the story exciting and unpredictable. Like many traditional Giallo films, Phantom Of Death begins with an identifiable protagonist (Robert) and a spate of bloody murders, but instead of having a deep mystery and a shocking reveal, Phantom Of Death chooses to reveal the murderer halfway through the film, and the rest of the movie revolves around the ‘cat and mouse’ chase between inspector Datti and the tormenting killer. Phantom Of Death is one of the few Giallo films to utilize dramatic irony in it’s story-telling, and because of this, watching the back and forth between the killer and inspector Datti in the second half is very entertaining, especially when you take into account the killer’s situation and his increasing desperation. Although the timeline of the film is quite unusual for a Giallo – the plot unfolds throughout the course of a year with clumsy transitions that signify the passage of time – the dramatic sequences that follow the life of the diseased Robert and his torment of inspector Datti more than make up for the weaknesses of the clumsy time frame. All in all, I found that Phantom Of Death was surprisingly original for a Giallo film, especially for 1988. It’s unconventional approach to story-telling definitely left a memorable impact on me.
That being said, though, Phantom Of Death is very rough around the edges. The film finds it’s focus in the second half, but the first half of the film is quite bizarre. For example, in the first half of Phantom Of Death, the film contains numerous scenes that involve Ninja fights and katana stunts, and these scenes have absolutely no bearing on the plot whatsoever. I can understand that these Ninja scenes were intentional red herrings to try and confuse the audience, but in the grand scheme of things, the Ninja footage is a completely unnecessary distraction from the main plot. The films suffers from bad pacing as well: every scene comes and goes with lightning speed which makes the film feel longer than it actually is. With a film that’s trying to have a dramatically sad plot-line, I would have preferred it if the film slowed down once in a while and paid more attention to the supporting characters instead of just jumping from month to month, like it wants to ‘skip to the good parts’ instead of giving an audience a deeper experience by expanding the already interesting characters.
That being said, however, I never thought the problems of Phantom Of Death overwhelmingly diminished the film’s potential, as Phantom Of Death has a lot more positive attributes than negative ones. In my opinion, Phantom Of Death is a worthwhile viewing experience. It’s a film with great music, great make-up effects and a great, emotional story, but it’s a film that’s far from perfect. That being said, however, I actually liked Phantom Of Death. I thought it was interesting, memorable, and very entertaining. The fact that Phantom Of Death didn’t get a cult following is very disappointing to me, as I think it’s a very understated Giallo film, one that deserves much more attention than it currently has. In conclusion, I’d recommend watching Phantom Of Death because it definitely stands out amongst the traditional Giallo fare.