Circle of Fear

Circle of Fear (Aldo Lado, 1992)

aka Alibi perfetto

Although fondly remembered for his early gialli SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS (1971) and WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972), very little is spoken about the later works of Italian director Aldo Lado. One of Lado’s last films was CIRCLE OF FEAR, which sees the gifted filmmaker returning to the genre that first got him started as a director. The end result, however, is radically different from his earlier thrillers.

After lengthy undercover work, narcotics agent Tony Giordani (Michael Woods) and his sexy partner (and secret lover) Lisa Bonetti (Kay Rush) are about to make a big drug bust in a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, they manage to blow it – causing a big shoot-out, during which the top man, seedy mobster Mancini (Burt Young), manages to escape. Tony and Lisa’s grumpy chief (Philippe Leroy) furiously reprimands them for letting Mancini get away right under their noses, and Tony walks out in anger. Later, Tony meets his soon-to-be ex-wife Elvi (Gianna Paola Scaffidi) for lunch but when they head down to the parking garage after their meal, a mysterious killer appears and brutally guns them down.

Tony barely survives the attempt on his life but poor Elvi dies from her injuries. Everyone assumes the shooting was mafia vendetta for the drug bust, but then Tony receives pictures of an old villa that Elvi–who had worked as a real estate agent–had photographed the day she was killed. Tony starts wondering if Elvi was the real target of the shooting because she had unknowingly photographed something she wasn’t supposed to have seen. His suspicions are confirmed when blow-ups of the photos reveal a shadowy figure in one of the windows. Tony tracks down the villa, where a rotten corpse and clues leading to the so-called “Full Moon Killer” are discovered. The Full Moon Killer was a brutal serial killer who was never caught, and because the body’s cause of death appears to be suicide, the cops believe they have finally found this long lost killer.

Tony, however, thinks there must be more to the case and wonders who the figure in Elvi’s photo could be. His chief keeps insisting the mafia was behind the shooting, so Tony decides to do some investigating of his own. He learns that the owner of the villa is Countess Beaumont (Annie Girardot), a middle-aged noblewoman who is locked up in an asylum. Tony goes to visit the countess and is informed that though she looks harmless, she is actually extremely dangerous and is kept behind a secure glass wall that no visitors are allowed to approach. Tony isn’t able to get much out of her but soon after his visit, the countess violently escapes the asylum and another murder is committed. It’s up to Tony and Lisa to solve the complicated case before the killer can strike again…

CIRCLE OF FEAR’s story and screenplay by veteran writer Dardano Sacchetti (with assistance from Robert Brodie Booth and Lado himself) is for the most part rather well done. Certainly, the addition of a mafia subplot is rather curious as it doesn’t really blend in too well with the rest of the film, but it was presumably added to pad the running time as the film, at just 78 minutes, is rather short. The rest of the story is quite good, though, even if Sacchetti borrows elements from DEEP RED (1975) – particularly the mysterious old villa with the corpse – as well as Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (1980). Furthermore, the insane countess behind the glass wall is clearly inspired by the Hannibal Lecter character from the then recent THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). But in spite of the borrowing, these plot elements blend together pretty nicely and Sacchetti’s story has some good twists and ideas. Indeed, I dare say the story is so well-crafted that had this film been made in the 1970s–with the typically stylish and flamboyant style of Italian genre films of the time–it would probably have been on a lot of people’s lists of favourite gialli. But unfortunately, CIRCLE OF FEAR was made in 1992 with the typical early 90s aesthetic that most other Italian films from this period are laced with. In other words, it has a flat, boring and impersonal look to it. Luigi Kuveiller’s cinematography is competent but very traditional and without any distinct visual style – it’s hard to believe this is the same guy who once shot DEEP RED. The jazzy music score by Romano Mussolini contains one good, toe-tapping suspense track, while the rest is the kind of dire music one expects to find in a bad, low-budget porno movie.

Fortunately, the film is redeemed somewhat through the presence of a few memorable supporting actors. Outstanding French actress Annie Girardot can always be relied on for a solid performance and she does a splendid job as the sinister madwoman who is not at all nice as she would seem. Carla Cassola – remembered from late Fulci films like THE HOUSE OF CLOCKS (1989) and DEMONIA (1990), as well as Michele Soavi’s THE SECT (1991) – also does a good job as the imperilled lawyer who’s handling the old villa but the most welcome presence is that of fan favourite Bobby Rhodes–unforgettable as the bad-ass pimp in DEMONS (1985)–as the brainy pathologist who’s chummy with the leading man. It’s always nice to see Bobby, even though he has a rather atypical role here.

Sadly, daytime soap actor Michael Woods just doesn’t cut it in the leading role. He’s handsome but without any discernible charisma, and his uninvolved acting makes it hard to care for his character. His co-star Kay Rush is no Meryl Streep either (at the time, Rush was a popular hostess for various music shows on Italian TV and radio) but she seems more relaxed and natural than Woods. Besides, Rush, who is of Japanese and German heritage and quite the looker, provides both welcome nudity and looks stunning in a tight blue cheongsam during the film’s opening sequence.

Veteran actor Philippe Leroy is also onboard as the temperamental police chief, whose character is obviously patterned after the grumpy police chiefs seen in numerous American “buddy cop films”. Leroy acts on auto-pilot in the clichéd scenes where he’s arguing with Michaels Woods, so he obviously took his part only for the money. American actor Burt Young–best known for his role as Sylvester Stallone’s brother-in-law in the ROCKY films–is mildly amusing but saddled with a mostly clichéd and poorly utilized role of the revenge-seeking mobster.

The thing that struck me the most about CIRCLE OF FEAR is how the eye for detail and visual style Aldo Lado displayed in SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and WHO SAW HER DIE? is completely missing. For the most part, his direction is just lifeless and impersonal. What little energy and life the film does have is solely due to Sacchetti’s story and some gifted supporting actors. Either Lado had lost his touch, or he just didn’t believe in the project. Regardless, it’s really sad to see how he is unable to get anything decent out of an interesting story.

The North American DVD from the budget Canadian company Madacy Entertainment is surprisingly good. The image is fullscreen but this looks to be the correct framing. Image is generally nice and sharp, with good, solid colours. The English dub track (featuring the usual gang of familiar dubbing voices) sounds clear and fine too. The only extra is a trailer, which spoils the killer’s identity and looks cheap and home-made. There are also a few preview trailers for other Madacy releases. All in all, this release isn’t spectacular but is pretty solid – especially for a cheap budget release.

It’s sad to see a talented director like Aldo Lado direct with such little enthusiasm. Sacchetti’s story has a lot of potential and could have been turned into a really nice little film had the direction, visuals and the leading actor been better. But as it is, CIRCLE OF FEAR is a missed opportunity. It may nevertheless warrant a viewing because of a few talented supporting actors and some good ideas.

(Johan Melle)