For once, here’s a foreign-language horror movie that might benefit from being remade in English. Set in Venice, it’s partially about a murderer who dresses up as a jester during carnival and murders tourists in plain view of crowds holding up camera phones, declaring ‘it’s all a joke’ as victims bleed out and are ignored. The context of the film is a protest movement in the sinking Italian city against a particular brand of obnoxious tourist … and, though director/co-writer Alex de la Iglesia manages to make his Spanish leads objectionable in all sorts of ways, they still aren’t as ghastly onscreen as British or American travellers abroad are generally presumed to be. The jester (Cosimo Fusco) is a loose cannon killer, upping the film’s body count generally, but is in cahoots with a mastermind in a beaky black plague doctor mask (rather overused in recent horror movies) who has a larger agenda and a bigger plan.
Five young, media-involved Spaniards – Ingrid Garcia Johnson, Silvia Alonso, Alberto Bang, Enrico Lo Verso, Goize Blanco – turn up at carnival, busy with their own group squabbles and concerns. On a water taxi to their hotel, they are bothered by the jester, who is marooned on a bouy by modern-day gondolier Giacomo (Armando de Razza). Later, the most irresponsible and annoying of the bunch disappears after a wild party in a secret lair and his sister insists the gang stop having fun and look for him. A stretch involving a fatherly copper (Alessandro Bressanello) and a sinister hotelier (Caterina Murino) goes down the Lady Vanishes/So Long at the Fair route as evidence that the missing lad really existed is hard to come by. Then, we get a Phantom of the Opera-type caper with the mad jester in an impressive sinking opera house set – Fusco’s characterisation is interestingly layered, in that he makes jokes and is self-satisfied after the manner of a horror movie franchise fiend who expects the audience to be on his side but is actually even shriller, nastier and unlikeable than the victims to the extent that even his confederates are embarrassed by his murder spree.
De la Iglesia has been making lively, confrontational, knockabout genre films for thirty years now but has lost little of his verve – Venecia Frenia (the onscreen title is two words) has a very striking credits sequence involving collage animations, makes great use of the city as a setting, and has great set-pieces. But often de la Iglesia veers into too-much-of-a-good-thing territory, and the editorial aspect about the effect of global tourism is muddled and weirdly beside the point while some plot elements (like why a water taxi driver should not only become an action hero but be involved by the police in a major anti-terrorist operation) just have to be taken on trust to get on with the fun.