Lamberto Bava was never quite as talented or inspired as his father, Mario, but he put out some decent genre fare from time to time, not the least of which is underrated serial killer film Body Puzzle. It's not a great thriller in a wider perspective, but when viewed through the lens of Italian gialli and their offspring, it does offer some pleasant gonzo fun.
The film opens with a young man (Francois Montagut) attempting to play the piano, but obviously wracked with sorrow, thinking back to a tragic motorcycle accident, in which his friend died. Seemingly without motive, the young man goes to a candy shop and stabs the clerk there to death, cutting off his ear, all the while listening to classical music on his headphones. We then cut to Tracy (Joanna Pacula), a recently widowed young book editor, whose husband we learn is the man who died in the accident. The killer watches Tracy through her window as she sleeps, and enters the home, but seems to do nothing. The next morning, Tracy discovers a human ear in her refrigerator.
Enter Detective Livet (genre fave Tomas Arana), tasked to investigate the death of the candy store clerk. He soon figures out that the ear in Tracy's fridge is the one cut from his victim, but struggles to understand the connection between her and the murder. But the killer doesn't wait around, and begins to kill more people. A woman in a shopping mall bathroom, a man in a public pool, it goes on. And every time he manages to leave a body part cut from the victim for Tracy, even when she is under twenty four hour police surveillance. It seems that a friend of her late husband's, with whom he'd had a falling out prior to his death, may be responsible for the killings, and it's a race against time as the police try to track him down before he can kill again.
That quick plot summary might sound unoriginal and clichéd, and it is to some extent. What makes Body Puzzle work is the execution. Bava manages to mix in genuine visual style, a steady feeling of tension and unease, and a large helping of weirdness to keep the viewer engaged. The film was produced in the early nineties, at the absolute tail end of the giallo trend in Italian cinema, but it owes an awful lot to the genre, and in giallo films, a consistent plot and understandable motives are not terribly important. But an over the top theatricality, exuberant blood effects and original kills are important, and Body Puzzle has all of these in abundance, along with some interesting characters, and actors familiar to fans, such as Arana himself and Erika Blanc in a small roll. The murders are all lovingly staged, and have a flair for dramatic juxtapositions and odd visualizations. The stabbing death of a teacher in front of a classroom of blind students, who don't react at all until one of them is splattered with blood, is a good example, as is the shot of a hand being cut off, with the camera looking up from inside a toilet bowl. Bava isn't afraid to inject some subtle (and not so subtle) visual humor into the mix.
That's not to say that the film doesn't have problems, it does. As with a lot of Italian thrillers of this type, the plot doesn't make an enormous amount of sense, and a number of questions and contradictions are not addressed at all when the final twist is revealed. A lot of the dialogue is silly, particularly when attempting an approximation of hard boiled cop talk. This is probably related to the less than stellar English dubbing, which does not add to the menacing tone the film is going for. The acting is so so, with Arana on occasion stiff and stilted, though he (and Pacula) can certainly give a good performance when they want. Bava seemed to be wanting to strike a balance between the performances of his two leads and the stylistic exuberance elsewhere in the film, and the film suffers for it.
Regardless, there are enough strange plot developments, off kilter jokes, and enthusiastic squirting blood to please the genre fans, and a well maintained tension sufficient to at least hold the attention of everyone else. Though it has flaws, Body Puzzle is probably among Lamberto Bava's best work in this period, excluding the Demons films. It's definitely worth a look. Recommended.