As a life-long horror fan, I can't help but adore Donald Pleasence, though my exposure to Pleasence's nearly 200 films is limited to the "Halloween" series, "Phenomena", and now "Fatal Frames". "Fatal Frames", for those who aren't aware, was Pleasence's final appearance on-screen, and it was disheartening to discover that such a prolific, amazing career was capped off by what amounts to little more than a cameo in one of the worst films of recent memory. "Fatal Frames" is the sort of film so inexplicably bad that words can't possibly do it justice.
Rick Gianasi, then fresh off "Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD" (and currently gearing up for the L.A.-based sequel), stars as Alex Ritt, a prominent music video director haunted by the memories of his wife's murder at the hands of the brutal "Video Killer". Upon arriving in Italy to shoot a video for a budding pop sensation, the indescribably creepy Stefania Stella, the Video Killer -- or someone copying his methodology of brutally slashing victims with a machete and videotaping the aftermath -- strikes again, offing cast and crew members one by one. Alex, the only witness to these murders in Italy, goes to the police, only to learn that Professor Robinson (Pleasence) had flown in from New York to convince authorities that Alex himself is the notorious serial killer. Is Professor Robinson correct? What connection, if any, does Alex have with the Video Killer? In true giallo fashion, these questions aren't answered until the final reel, with an ending that almost redeems the painful two hours required to get to that point.
If I were Ritt, I'd wonder why anyone would conceive of plunking down a million dollars to produce a Stefania Stella music video. Her songs don't offer any sort of broad appeal, and Stella, with her back-alley boob job, looks more like the hooker-turned-horror in Lamberto Bava's "Demons" than, say, Britney Spears. The direction is amateurish, the dialogue is laughable, the book-rate special effects will have viewers in hysterics, and the acting makes some of the soap operas on Univision look good by comparison. That said, "Fatal Frames" is a lot of fun to watch because it's so awful, and the smart moeny says that's why Synapse decided to release this film over...say...anything else, ever. Director Al Festa played a very prominent role in producing this DVD, and the mounds of extras outclass most of the product from much larger DVD houses. "Fatal Frames" isn't going to appeal to a large audience, but a few thousand schlock-horror fans are going to eat this up, I'm sure.
Video: Though the 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer was supervised and approved by director Al Festa, I can't say I was particularly impressed. The image is lacking in detail, frequently appearing grainy and soft. Black levels are wildly inconsistent, generally muddy but occassionally taking on more of a light grayish-brown hue. The brightness seems to have been bumped up too far in some scenes, notably during some daytime exteriors. During some darker blue-tinted shots, compression artifacting is evident. "Fatal Frames" sports a pretty crappy transfer, but it comes with the director's stamp of approval.
Audio: The stereo surround track, also by Festa, fares much better. Some dialogue occassionally sounds distorted, but this could have been the way it was originally recorded. Surrounds are surprisingly used fairly effective, but the greatest aspect of the audio on this DVD is how it accentuates the laughable foley work.
Supplements: I'd read on horrordvds.com that some Toshiba players were having trouble playing "Fatal Frames". Though the film played fine, the special features menu was not accessible on my player. To review the supplements (although the commentary is accessible from the title menu), I had to use my DVD-ROM. After a considerable amount of trouble to give these features a spin, I discovered that some of the special feature menu screens have no way to get back to any root menu. Very shoddy authoring job here, folks.
First impression of the commentary -- in what sort of cavernous location was this recorded? The commentary is introduced by the guy who did the voice-over on the trailer, and I thought that the immense echo was for dramatic effect. Nope, it's like that all the way through. Some bizarre noise is also on the track, as if someone were randomly pressing keys on an organ or something. In accordance with Italian commentary recording law, an Italian journalist, Claudio Somethingoranotheri, chats with Al Festa, Stefania Stella Di Giandomenico, and English Trailer Voice Over Guy (sorry, no names listed on the packaging or menus, and I don't carry a notepad with me when I watch DVDs). Much like the commentary on Synapse's "Evil Dead Trap", the language barrier adds some unintentional hilarity, along with everyone involved being seemingly blissfully unaware how terrible "Fatal Frames" truly is. English Trailer Voice Over Guy is my favorite participant, obsessing over the time required to light candles and providing a steady stream of exposition and bad jokes.
Four of Al Festa's music videos are included on the disc, and...wow. Although I have no idea who the artist(s) are or what the titles of these songs might be (some of them are listed in the documentary, but I was too lazy to write anything down), but video #2 is the greatest music video ever. The final video is spiced up with some nudity to break the monotony. Videos for the three Stefania Stella songs in the film, "Eternal City", "Alibi", and "Pensamiento Estupendo", are also part of the set.
Sixteen minutes of extended and deleted scenes were dug up for this DVD. The highlight is the full snuff movie projected early on, along with a bizarre sequence involving a 'zombie'. I'm still trying to figure that one out. "The Making of Fatal Frames", a 26 minute documentary, features a number of on-set interviews with cast and crew, along with some behind the scenes footage. There's a lot of redundancy -- the full 90 second English TV spot, music video excerpts, and far too many clips from the feature are interspersed throughout. There's also a bizarre beveled grid on the screen for much of the documentary, giving the impression that this is something I'd be viewing on a tiny black and white monitor on a movie set than a supplement on a DVD.
There are also two TV spots, one in English and the other Italian, along with an Italian theatrical trailer. Al Festa-penned biographies of himself, Stefania Stella, Donald Pleasence, Rick Gianasi, Angus Scrimm, Linnea Quigley, David Warbeck, Ciccio Ingrassia, Rossano Brazzi, Alida Valli, and Ugo Pagliai round out the supplements.
Conclusion: "Fatal Frames" is a genuinely awful movie, but I'm certain Synapse's Don May Jr. is aware of how unintentionally hilarious the film is. Synapse seems to gear its products towards a very specific subset of horror fans, and speaking as part of that target audience, "Fatal Frames" is recommended.