My notes on The Laplace’s Demon
This Italian film – directed by Giordano Giulivi, who also co-scripted by Duccio Giulivi from a story he devised with Silvano Bertolin and Ferdinando D’Urbano would make an apt double bill partner with the Spanish Fermat’s Room. Though they have different styles, both films feature small groups of clever people invited to an isolated, enclosed place where they are killed off one by one on the pattern of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. They also both namecheck famous mathematicians in their titles and build their plots around theorems and theories. In 1814, the Frenchman Pierre Simon Laplace mused that if a demon knew the precise place and momentum of every atom in the universe, it would be able to state with exactitude where they had come from and where they were going. It’s a plank in the theory of causal or scientific determinism.
In this film, scientists who have been working on a very limited test of the theory – a formula to predict the precise fragmentation of a dropped glass – are invited by the mysterious Professor Cornelius to his home, an old dark house on a desolate island, for a demonstration of a much more sophisticated and sinister program. The host appears, like U.N. Owen in the Christie novel, only as a recording – a shadowy figure on a VHS cassette – and the centrepiece of his home is an elaborate dolls’ house replica of the mansion complete with eight pawns representing the guests, which move by clockwork in an exact prediction of the way the invitees move … as they are stalked by an automatic murderer represented by a black queen which glides dalek-like through the toy house, eventually revealed as a coffin-like trap with almost comical glowing eyes. The characters struggle against their fate, but Cornelius’s application of Laplace seems to fix them in their courses even as they try to resist. Eerily, Cornelius himself contributes to the conversation with pre-recorded lines on the tape that fit perfectly into the arguments which flare up as the cast are whittled down. Roy Lombard (Alessandro Zonfrilli) and Sophia Brent (Carlotta Mazzoncini) are the notional leads, but still very much in the game and liable to be ‘taken’ – while anyone who’s seen any of the many film adaptations and derivatives of Christie’s novel might be wondering whether Cornelius is a real mystery man or posing as one of his own guests.
The film is at once witty and creepy, and a very specific pastiche of a style of Italian horror film from the early 1960s – using extensive CGI sets to match the black and white look Mario Bava established with La Maschera del Demonio/The Mask of Satan, but drawing equally on lesser-known films like I Lunghi Capelli della Morte/The Long Hair of Death, La Danza Macabra/Castleof Blood, Horror/The Blancheville Monster and 5 tombe per un medium/Terror-Creatures From the Grave. Though Silvano Bertolin, sporting the sort of goatee Howard Vernon or Christopher Lee might once have hidden behind, plays token Germanic Professor Karlheinz von Schach, most of the Italian-spieling cast are given anglo-sounding but unconvincing (and allusive) character names like ‘Herbert MacGuffin’, ‘Alfred Algel Narracott’ and ‘Isaac Bradbury’. The actors, who include many of the screenwriters, declaim in melodramatic style, rising to hysteria pitch as they act out a preordained scenario of doom – struggling to emote but never to convince. It’s almost akin to the sort of high, artificial style Guy Maddin favours in his pastiches of lost cinema, but the tight, ruthless plotting allows for genuine suspense and horror only edged with black humour. The clockwork murder mansion is a fascinating device, explored by the camera as the bodies are snatched offscreen – and it’s a credit to Giulivi and collaborators that the actual killing box when it shows up isn’t a disappointment after its representation as the killer chess piece.
One of my favourite films in this year’s line-up.