Someone is slashing their way through a troupe of dancers at the bizarrely-named 'Arts for the Living Center' in New York. And by 'slashing' I mean 'chloroforming and then stabbing them in the heart with a large hatpin'. Lieutenant Borges, giving NY Ripper's Jack Hedley's Lt Williams a run for his money in the ineffectual cop stakes, is lukewarm on the trail of the killer, with the guilty party seemingly one of the students or teachers of the school. Or is it, in fact, Ray Lovelock's alcoholic actor, George Webb, who begins a romance with head teacher Candice Norman after she dreams about him murdering her and tracks him down in real life? Why do the students keep hanging out along in the academy as its closing? And why don't the plentiful CCTV cameras get any shots of the killer??
This isn't top tier Fulci; in fact, only the relatively decent budget raises it somewhat above such late-career lowlights as Demonia and Aenigma. Definitely his worst giallo, the film is a tired retread of the New York Ripper, coming from the same writing team, possibly even using the same story outline. However, whereas the Ripper was, for better or worse, an extremely powerful treatise on misogyny, misanthropy and urban alienation, this film is Fulci on autopilot, seemingly unconcerned that the script reads like a hastily thrown together first draft.
Both Murder Rock and the NY Ripper feature investigations by policemen, rather than the amateur sleuths which proliferated a decade previously in the filone's heyday. It's easy to poke fun at Italian films for their occasionally clunky English dialogue and lapses of logic-and it is precisely the out-of-leftfield nature of the films which is a core part of the appeal for many-but it's impossible to overlook the fact that the Lieutenants are, to put it mildly, not very proficient. Having an amateur sleuth who has something personal at stake gives us a more passionate central character, in whom we can forgive the occasional duff move because they're not policemen. These amateurs typically become obsessed with and consumed by their investigation, whereas with coppers they're just doing their job. And when it's a copper just doing their job, they need to do a good job. Or even a passable one.
Cosimo Cinieri, Fulci's go-to guy around this time, certainly looks the part, but his Lt Borges is an absolute disaster of a detective. His first big pronouncement is to daringly suggest that "the killer-the murderer-is someone who has easy access to the school." Huge insight there, given that the first murder happened inside the school. Then, after a secret recording is used to identify a student who, claiming to be the murderer, phoned in a threat to kill again, he secures a confession from the self-confessed killer. Said confession is immediately dismissed, on the grounds that the student knew he'd be caught, and was merely publicity-hungry. But-how did the student know he'd be caught? He was only identified because Borges' colleague secretly recorded the students talking to the police. Maybe the student, who has made a call identifying himself as the killer and who has confessed to the murders, might actually be guilty? I mean, he's not-there's still half the film left at this stage, but Borges didn't know that! Finally, after the killer incriminates themselves by referring to a piece of evidence which was kept secret from the general public, Borges allows them to leave the police station without so much as a tail, a gamble which kind-of pays off when the killer commits suicide, but one which completely unnecessarily threatened the life of at least one character.
It's not just Borges whose work is of a questionable standard (the films' writers, for example, are also guilty of same). His colleague Professor Davis, the equivalent of Paolo Malco's identically-named character in Ripper (possibly also played here as gay by Giuseppe Mannajuolo) dismisses Claudio Cassinelli as a suspect after a photo of the murderer's torso shows them wearing a leather jacket. Cassinelli, who was picked up outside the crime scene by police on an undefined stake out (why didn't they nab the actual killer when they left minutes before?), and who'd been having an affair with the murdered girl, was indeed wearing different clothes when arrested. Did the police enact a thorough search of the house to ensure that he hadn't changed clothes and stashed the leather jacket? Of course not; Davis dismisses the case against Cassinelli solely because he "always wears a suit and tie." Egad. Although, again, I have to ask why the police on stakeout didn't just identify the leather jacket wearer once the photograph surfaces.*
The substandard police work on show is presumably why Geretta Geretta plots a copycat kill, based on the real murderer's modus operandi, and, after being unable to go through with it, sobs "They never would've suspected me." This despite her being the person who discovered the first murdered girl's body, as well as having the biggest motive of anyone for killing her intended victim. Presumably this would've led to Borges and Davis dismissing her as a suspect on some spurious basis. It's almost as if the police realise they're in a giallo, and are acting according to the laws of the film world, rather than the 'real' one!
So, plotwise, things don't hang together too well. However, the same could be said for Ripper, which more than compensated for these failings. The same can't be said here, unfortunately, despite some token, and occasional, efforts by Fulci to amp up the style. Mirrors feature heavily, especially early on in the dancing scenes, to little real effect, and his beloved pulsing lights are very much in evidence, with the school signifying the approach of its closing time by introducing a weird on-off lighting scheme, and the murder scenes feature possibly the Fulciest 'bleached out photography' set up ever. An atmospheric slow motion dream sequence, echoing the surreal dream at the centre of Ripper, introduces Ray Lovelock's character, as well as (SPOILER) giving a large clue as to the murderer's identity, featuring as it does one of the killer's hatpins, which the dreamer wouldn't have seen before unless they'd already used them to kill women and birds). (END SPOILER)
The end sequence takes place in a CCTV control room, with the killer tormented by footage of their victims in their dancing pomp filling the screens. This sequence could've captured the mounting terror and confusion of the killer, but is hamstrung by flat staging, a poor score (more on that anon) and-for me, anyway-the distracting nature of the CCTV images, which seem suspiciously like professionally-shot film footage from non-CCTV angles. And, as previously posited, if the school features such extensive surveillance, how on earth did the killer escape detection? The classic Fulci eyes-and-bridge-of-nose close up appears precisely once in the film, and, given its context, is an extremely unsubtle attempt at a subtle hint. The eye CU was never exactly utilised with any subtlety in Fulci's films, but here it has all the finesse of a fistbump with a concrete boxing glove. Or a director running on empty.
The film is apparently an unofficial adaptation of a novel called A Time of Predators by Joe Gores, although from reading the synopsis of the book I suspect that this is untrue. I also suspect that the Keith Emerson responsible for the awful plinkety plonk score was some randomer hired by accident, under the mistaken assumption that he was the famous musician of the same name. I'd even be tempted to suggest the Lucio Fulci who sat in the director's chair might have been a similar imposter, were there not sprinklings of his DNA evident throughout the film. And, unlike the terrible policemen who were at the heart of his 80s gialli, I know how to interpret a clue when I see one. So Lucio, you are, sadly, under arrest, charged with producing an anodyne, anaemic rehash of previous, far superior glories.
*There's a chance that the police are on the stakeout after the crime has been rung in, and are hoping that the killer returns to the scene of the crime. This, however, isn't made explicitly clear.