Lisa, a business woman with a senior position in an investment firm, is under pressure at work to perform. She leads a secret double life, visiting a secret sex club at night to perform in a different manner. We discover that the card taken from the castrated man was a membership card for the club, called 'Tulpa'.
A woman with whom Lisa had sex at the club is stalked and murdered by the killer, who finishes her off by tying her to a roundabout at a fairground and repeatedly rotating her into barbed wire.
Lisa's boss clearly has amorous designs on her, and her colleagues don't like her. She returns to the club for more fun and games. This time, as she has a threesome with a man and a woman, she sees a mysterious masked figure spying on her. Later that night, the woman from the threesome is brutally murdered, taking steaming water to the face.
Lisa's boss is mentioned as being a suspect in a corruption probe. When she's shown an article about this in a newspaper, her attention is caught by a piece on the opposite page, detailing the three recent murder victims. We discover that she'd also previously had sex with the castrated man at Tulpa.
She breaks into Tulpa to access their membership files, and contacts Stefan, the man from the recent threesome, to tell him his life is in danger. He decides to stay rather than flee, because she took the trouble of contacting him (WTF Stefan??!).
Maria, a work rival of Lisa's, had followed her to Tulpa, and photographed her break-in. She's murdered, in a staged suicide, right after sending the photos to Ferri, another work colleague. Ferri attempts to blackmail Lisa (but also makes the rookie mistake of showing the photos to their boss before he does so), and also falls into the killer's clutches.
Lisa is forced to resign after the disappearance of her two colleagues and appearance of the photos, so she goes to stay with her best friend, Giovanna. That night she's woken by mysterious noises, and finds Stefan in the shed, bound and almost dead. It turns out that Giovanna, jealous of her friend's multiple lovers, was the killer. She stabs Stefan to death before a vision of the mysterious owner of the Tulpa club, Kiran, appears, and causes her to commit suicide. Lisa's boss comes to the crime scene and apologises for suspecting her.
Five months later, Lisa is the president of the company, and returns to Tulpa, ready to sample life's darker, neon-red pleasures once more.
Watching the film, I assumed that the tulpa stuff was a semi-interesting metaphor for Lisa's guilt at her connection with the murder victims. The sex she'd shared with them had given the killer his or her agency; so in effect the sex created the killer. Which nicely ties into the fact that the sex club is called Tulpa. Why Federico Zampaglione felt the need to throw the club's resident shaman, Kiran, into the finale as a quasi-vision, suggesting that Giovanna has been possessed by an actual tulpa demon and bringing a wholly unnecessary metaphysical bent to the climax, is anyone's guess. He should have learned from the victims of the weird sex club-sometimes a normal, not-weird climax is your best bet.
The soundtrack, partly composed by the director, is also a big disappointment. It seems to be channelling the Buddhist mysticism aspects of the film at least as much as classic giallo music. This is to be applauded in some respects, in that he's not just re-treading old ground (and, indeed, the lack of any pastiche or homages in the film in general is to be similarly praised), but the score just isn't that effective.
Returning to the climax, and setting aside the tulpa possession side of things, I feel Zampaglione dropped the ball here in other ways. Lisa unwittingly runs straight to the killer seeking solace, but the film just rushes ahead to a generic walking-through-a-dark-house-at-night scene (and, as with all the nighttime scenes in the film, it's too dark) without pausing to consider the delicious opportunities the scenario offers.
One area where Zampaglione does adhere to giallo tradition is in the killer's unmasking. In common with 98% of gialli, we discover that Giovanna is the killer at the climax of the film, as a classic Big Reveal. The mechanics of the reveal, and its position at the end of the film, quickly became a formulaic part of gialli (and slashers which incorporate a whodunnit aspect), and it's one of the least experimented-with tropes.
In an unproduced giallo script I wrote almost a decade ago (called The Three Sisters), the killer's identity is revealed halfway through the film, though only to the audience. This allowed for several tense scenes later on in the film, where the audience's awareness of one character's true colours and simultaneous awareness that this knowledge was not possessed by the other characters creates a base level of tension in pretty much every single scene. (You may ask why this films remains unproduced if the script was so brilliant and tension-inducing; many's a night I have sat out under the stars shouting that same question up at the movie gods. I'll let you know if they get back to me.)
Gialli often derive tension from the space between what the audience knows and what the characters know for murder scenes (think of any number of shots of black gloved hands entering the frame as a blissfully-unaware character goes about their business in the background), so it's strange that so few writers and directors take it that bit further and apply this knowledge-gap theory at the level of plot. (That's not to say none do; Mario Bava, who clearly was bored of the formulaic side of gialli with his later entries, reveals the killer's identity at the beginning of Hatchet for the Honeymoon. Other films which feature early unmaskings are The Killer Must Kill Again and Formula for a Murder.)
In the case of Tulpa, the fact that Lisa has unwittingly run straight to the lion's den (Giovanna's house) offers a great opportunity for an early unmasking. The question of who the killer is would have been answered, but other questions would be generated by our knowing that Giovanna is the killer-will she kill Lisa? Why is she killing people? How will normality be restored (another trope with which filmmakers of gialli seem loathe to experiment)?
Instead, we get the aforementioned walking-through-a-dark-house scene. Lisa finds Stefan, strung up and on the verge of death, and Giovanna appears to finish him off. Lisa may as well have gone to Stefan's house, or her own house, for all the relevance the location bears to the scene-the fact that she's just run straight to the clutches of the killer is almost incidental, and ultimately contributes nothing.
I'm not sure whether I'm being too harsh or too forgiving of Tulpa. It's entirely laudable that Zampaglione has made a film which is a 21st Century giallo, and steers well clear of the neo-giallo ghetto. There are some incredible make-up effects (which are helped immeasurably by the overly dark photography) and some decent set pieces (the first stalk-and-slash scene features a great bit in a tunnel, before the darkness overwhelms the action). The mystical aspects, however, don't work at all, and there are some plot holes for those people who like everything wrapped up in a neat logical box (how did Giovanna get into the club the first time, to witness Lisa and the castrated guy's sex session?). And, ultimately, it doesn't hold a candle to the best gialli. But thank Buddha that films like it are still being made, and in Italy too.