Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week our pick heads to Italy for a somewhat forgotten giallo called Plot of Fear.
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
Ask someone to name their favorite Italian film and there’s a good chance their answer will be either a spaghetti western or a horror movie. (Sure, someone might respond with a Roberto Benigni title, but that’s how you know it’s time to trim your friends list.) If it’s the latter, there’s an equally good chance that their horror favorite will be a giallo. The sub-genre may not be widely discussed in pop culture, but people who love giallos truly love them. This week’s Prime Sublime pick, though, is a giallo that too few of those fans have seen. It Italy it’s called E tanta paura. In West Germany, it’s known as Magnum 45. In Sweden, its title is Bloody Peanuts…
But on Amazon Prime it’s the international title being used, so let’s sit back, relax, and dig into Plot of Fear (1976).
What’s it about?
A man is strangled to death by his S&M mistress. A woman is beaten until dead by a man with a wrench. The murders couldn’t be more different, but both share a connection in pages from a children’s book found beside the bodies. 1845’s Struwwelpeter (aka Shock-Headed Peter) is a Brothers Grimm-like fable about misbehaving children and their punishments that followed, and it’s not long before the police suspect the killer is out to teach people life-ending lessons.
More bodies hit the slab, and the investigation centers in on an elite, perverted little group of wealthy animal lovers known as the Fauna Lovers Club. They disbanded a few years prior when the rich man who hosted the parties disappeared, but as the membership list is violently decreased — and the killer collects their obituaries — a disturbing mystery grows. Why are the wealthy ex-members being murdered? Who kills without ever repeating the same method? And could any of it have something to do with the young woman they wanted to feed to a tiger? Oh, and what the hell is Tom Skerritt doing here as a Chief Inspector?
What makes it sublime?
Plot of Fear isn’t mentioned much (or at all) when people talk about their favorite giallo films, and it’s understandable. There are no graphic kills here, no stylish crane-assisted shots capturing the beauty or carnage (although an end tracking shot involving a hall of mirrors is inventively staged), and the killer isn’t exactly walking around wearing black leather gloves. There is a prominently displayed bottle of J&B Rare Scotch Whisky, though. And it probably doesn’t help that director Paolo Cavara (Black Belly of the Tarantula, 1971) seems nearly as interested in making his film a poliziotteschi (an Italian police thriller) too judging by the social commentary, the presence of a solid foot chase through traffic, and the amount of time we spend following the detective on the case.
Inspector Gaspare Lomenzo (Michele Placido) is a determined detective out to catch this killer, but he’s no workaholic. He spends time with his Black model girlfriend who’s prone to dissing Black men, but when she dumps him he moves onto another model named Jeanne (Corinne Cléry). He’s a smooth talker, as evidenced by a first date conversation where he mentions that “before I go to sleep, I usually have sex,” and it works like gangbusters. Of course, he also says that his “frontal lobes are highly developed.” It’s complicated, though, as Jeanne is one of the witnesses to the young woman’s death at one of the club’s parties.
That death is key to the murders, and as flashbacks reveal the truth of what happened inside the Fauna Club it’s made clear that she and her friends weren’t exactly upstanding citizens. She shares some of what she recalls — the hardcore cartoons, the coerced game of “guess who’s being sucked off beneath the table,” the wild animals roaming the halls — but she hides even more. The inspector lags behind, but audiences are quickly caught up on the villainy that connects the victims, and therein rests the first of the film’s two big ideas.
If it’s bad people being targeted for death, can we really root for the killer to be caught? Would we? Lomenzo at that point becomes less of the typical hero than an obstacle to justice — he also turns down a threesome with Jeanne and her friend because he loves her too much, so yeah, he’s far from the usual giallo protagonist — and his journey’s end also brings the film’s other thought on society’s ills. Just how easy is it to snuff out another person’s life? Extremely easy, it turns out, as just about anyone can be coerced into anything with the right degree and direction of pressure.
Most giallo films revel in the end reveal where the killer is “unmasked” and the elaborate motive explained, but Plot of Fear‘s explanation has the convoluted details down and then some. While most films give the killer a minute or two to lay out their grand plan, here we’re subjected to ten minutes or more of detailed explanation and conversation. Again, it’s elements like this that seem destined to push giallo fans away, but it arguably adds a layer to the proceedings that most in the sub-genre don’t bother to attempt. The motive may be built on revenge, but the execution is constructed out of a broken society’s own building blocks.
As mentioned, the kills vary from beatings to a guy shot in the head on live television to another man skewered and hung up alongside pig carcasses, and while the killer’s versatility impresses the police it also leaves little opportunity for elaborate or gory demises. Still, there’s something engaging about the Fairy Tale Killer’s “macabre invitation for a treasure hunt” signified by those pages from the children’s book. Does it answer all of the questions it poses? No. I still don’t know what landed Skerritt into a five-minute cameo, and I’m wholly in the dark as to why the Swedes call it Bloody Peanuts, but while it’s unconventional it’s still a curious ride worth taking.
And in conclusion…
There’s a lot going on in Plot of Fear, from murder to wild animal smuggling to Eli Wallach to stolen diamonds to Nazis to whatever the hell is going on in that X-rated cartoon, and for better or worse, it’s unlike most giallo films you’re used to. Its inclusion within the Prime Sublime canon is not to suggest it’s among the best giallos — it’s far from it — but the choices made here reveal a filmmaker less interested in fitting into a genre pattern and more interested in drawing outside the lines. Cavara’s directorial career began with several “documentaries” including Mondo Cane (1962) and Women of the World (1963), but a decade later he was a filmmaker determined to pair shock value with observation and commentary. Whether he succeeds or not is up to the viewers.