Note: The main body of this review is predominantly the same as the one I wrote for the Italian release. Where appropriate, I have inserted additional observations based on issues revealed in the English subtitles that were not previously apparent to me. Since I'm quoted on the front cover of this release, I retain exclusive bragging rights.
Dario Argento's 1987 giallo Opera holds a special place in my heart. It is my personal favourite film of the genre and can easily be said to be the last movie he made that fired from all of its proverbial cannons. Therefore, you can rest assured, when I say that Eyes of Crystal (Occhi di Cristallo in its original Italian) is the finest giallo since Opera, that I am affording it a high pedigree indeed.
The giallo genre waxed and waned in the short space of a few years in the early 1970s - a sort of microcosm of the fate of its stable-mate, the Spaghetti Western, if you will. Output since around 1975 has been limited to say the least, with Argento serving as virtually the sole standard-bearer for the genre over the course of the last 30 years. Attempts to resurrect this very particular type of film have been, by and large, unsuccessful, and it has been claimed by some that the genre was so specific to the period of the early 70s that it could not hope to survive beyond such a limited timeframe. The aforementioned Opera, to my mind, is the only example of a giallo that successfully made the transition into a different period, harnessing the STD paranoia of the late 80s to play on the audiences darkest fears. Other attempts have seemed very much like fish out of water when deprived of the casual innocence and newfound liberalism that emerged from the 1960s, simply retreading old ground and offering nothing new. In many respects, Eyes of Crystal could be said to be yet another such giallo, and yet it is handled with such skill that this does not seem to matter. Its subdued lighting and grungy urban settings are about as far from the psychedelic bourgeois sentiments of 70s gialli as possible, and yet for all intents and purposes this is very much a giallo in the classic sense of the word - a riveting murder mystery featuring a killer with a disturbing past and a decidedly Latin flair.
A serial killer is terrorizing the city, slaughtering with no mercy and no small amount of creativity. Hot on the trail is the hard-bitten Inspector Giacomo Amaldi (Luigi Lo Cascio), who quickly notices a pattern to the killings: each time, a different body part is removed and replaced with the equivalent part of a mannequin. The body count is increasing, however, and the killer's identity remains a mystery. Does the answer lie in hallucinatory childhood memories of Ajaccio (Simón Andreu), a fellow detective slowly being killed by a brain tumour? And how does Amaldi's new girlfriend, the beautiful university student Giuditta (Lucia Jiménez), who is being terrorized by an anonymous prankster (the killer, or simply a red herring?), fit into the puzzle?
Puglielli sets the tone for the film as soon as the opening credits have finished rolling: brutal and nihilistic. The killer sneaks across a field, rifle in hand, and comes across an old man masturbating to a young couple having sex. Within seconds, all three of them are dead, the two men riddled with bullets and the woman beaten to a pulp with the butt of his rifle. This is a killer who is calm, calculating and without mercy. His victims are carefully chosen and their murders carried out with expert precision. After the relatively bloodness nature of Argento's latest film, The Card Player, it is a pleasure to see a film that doesn't flinch from depicting the full barbarity of murder (although it certainly doesn't wallow in the gore, or use it to titillate, either). The death scenes are superbly crafted and carry with them that sense of inevitability that nonetheless keeps you glued to the screen, hoping that the victim will somehow escape with their life, even though you know it's hopeless. Puglielli may lose marks taking the easy way out and never really allowing us to get to know his victims (with a couple of exceptions), but nonetheless he deserves a round of applause for making it so damned engaging.
What is perhaps most surprising about this film is the level to which its lead is developed. In a genre often panned for its cardboard cut-out characters, Amaldi is a genuinely intriguing individual: a hard-bitten detective haunted by his own personal failings. His dedication to his job has resulted in him being a lonely outsider with an explosive temper, and while the character constantly runs the risk of decending into the realm of cop cliché, Luigi Lo Cascio's performance ensures that he comes across as sincere. Most giallo protagonists are fairly one-dimensional, but the script, and Lo Cascio's acting, ensure that Amaldi is more than that. One crucial scene, in which he breaks down in tears before Giuditta, showcases a level of subtlety in his performance virtually unheard of in the genre. As Giuditta, Spanish actress Lucia Jiménez also leaves a strong impression, and although her role is more or less that of the "damsel in distress", she makes it more than the sum of its parts by giving a solid, sympathetic performance, even if she seems too old to be believable in the role of young university student. Finally, from a purely fanboyish perspective, compulsive giallo viewers should get a kick out of seeing a much-aged Simón Andreu showing up in a prominent role.
In a stark contrast to Argento's last few films, Eyes of Crystal's production values are impressive. Although the estimated budget, according to IMDB, was a mere €2,600,000 (only €600,000 more than The Card Player), its look is consistently impressive and incredibly professional, constantly playing with light and shadow - a far cry from the comparative flatness of Argento's Non Ho Sonno. The special effects are also extremely impressive, particularly the various animatronic animals and gore shots; in fact, the film was nominated in the Best Visual Effects category for the 2005 David di Donatello Award (the Italian equivalent of the Oscars). Special mention must go to Francesc Gener's haunting score, which frequently combines a soprano voice with vaguely Celtic influences. It's unlike anything I have ever heard in a giallo before, and proves to be extremely effective.
So many elements of the film are so good that it's just a shame it couldn't have been flawless. The script, penned in part by regular Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini, is let down by a significant number of clichés, from the familiar situation of lights just happening to short out when the killer's next victim is alone in a deserted building, right down to the identity of the villain himself, which becomes fairly evident early on: he/she is one of the few secondary characters to be given a significant amount of screen time. (Having said this, the motive is a rather interesting one.) Furthermore, I wasn't particularly enamoured by Puglielli's habit of attempting to build tension by shaking the camera around like a lunatic. At least in the various action and stalk sequences this is somewhat justified, but when the same technique is used in a love scene it just seems absurd. Finally, while the first half of the film spends a great deal of time building up to the revelation of the dark secret that has haunted Amaldi for so long, when he finally states what is on his mind, it comes across as rather obvious, and as such is a bit of a let-down.
That said, Eyes of Crystal is an engaging piece of work with excellent performances, glossy visuals and a high degree of atmosphere. It's great to see another Italian director attempt a modern-day giallo, and to be honest, Puglielli's effort is actually a couple of steps above even the mighty Argento's recent output. To me, this proves that, contrary to popular belief, the genre is not dead at all and is simply in hibernation, waiting for a new visionary to lead it into the modern era. Judging by Eyes of Crystal, Puglielli could be the man for the job.
When it was released on DVD in Italy by 01 Distribution, Eyes of Crystal was given a very good transfer and audio mix, but unfortunately failed to include any support for English language speakers. Revolver Entertainment's UK release has been delayed numerous times, and the specifications have changed since the original announcement. Initially, Revolver planned on porting over the audio commentary from the Italian release, in addition to adding a DTS audio track. Neither of these things have ultimately happened, and to add insult to injury the disc features very unsightly, large, burnt-in subtitles.
This is a shame, because the transfer is very good - better, in fact, than its Italian counterpart, although a close comparison between the two reveals that the same source master has been used. The image shows a nice amount of detail and a pleasing level of fine grain, and the muted colours seem to be faithful to Puglielli's intentions. Some compression artefacts can at times be glimpsed, particularly during transitions between shots, but by and large the transfer is of a high standard. If only it didn't have those damned subtitles! (The final score for Video reflects their inclusion.)
Separate Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 mixes have been provided in the film's original Italian. I listened primarily to the 5.1 variant, and it seems to be exactly the same track that was included on the Italian DVD. It showcases the film's impressive sound design, with some nice split-channel effects, deep bass and crisp, clear dialogue. Much of the dialogue, incidentally, seems to have been post-dubbed (many of the actors are Spanish, not Italian, and almost all of the bit parts were played by Bulgarians), but a pretty good job has been done of it, and I must say I found it refreshing to watch a giallo that had been performed in Italian rather than with the actors miming English (although, oddly enough, the various books that appear throughout the film are all in English).
View a detailed comparison between the two releases here.
While the Italian release featured an audio commentary with Puglielli and Lo Cascio, as well as the film's theatrical trailer, the UK release instead contains two featurettes. The first, and most substantial, is a 20-minute making of affair, which interviews Puglielli, Lo Cascio, Jiménez and various other cast and crew members, as well as providing a substantial amount of footage both on the film set and in the make-up studio. Luca di Fulvio, author of the giallo novel upon which the film is based, also shows up to express his appreciation for Puglielli's interpretation of his story. The featurette is in Italian with English subtitles. In the instances were a Spanish cast member is speaking, their dialogue is subtitled in both Italian and English.
The second featurette, entitled "Sul Set Di" ("on the set of..."), runs for 3 and a half minutes and is pretty redundant, reusing much of the same footage as the previous piece.
It's great to finally see an English-friendly release of this enjoyable and tightly-executed giallo - it's just a shame it isn't as good as it could have been. Still, I suspect that, for most viewers, it will be a preferable option to the Italian-only release, and as a result I urge all giallo fans who have not yet checked out Eyes of Crystal to give this DVD a shot.