Violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini lived the equivalent of a rock star lifestyle in the 19th century. So great was his musicianship and so intense were his performances, he was popularly thought to have done a deal with the Devil. Paganini’s turbulent life was the subject of biopics ranging from The Magic Bow (1946) with Stewart Granger to Paganini (1989), the last movie and personal project of actor-writer-director Klaus Kinski, but it’s the myth of the Satanic fiddle player that fuels this trashy Italian horror. A sweet little girl (Giada Cozzi, the director’s daughter) carries her violin home along a gondola ride through the misty canals of Venice. Soaking in a bubble bath, her mum (Elena Pompei) listens as she performs a Paganini composition called “La Streghe” (The Witches) and remarks the girl be a great musician one day. To which her child responds by chucking a hairdryer in the bathtub and watching mum fry to death. Guess she has a different career path in mind.
Years later, Kate (Jasmine Maimone), scary lead singer-songwriter of a spandex clad all-girl glam rock band, can’t come up with a hit song to satisfy prickly record producer Lavinia (Maria Christina Mastrangeli). Their friend Daniel (Pascal Perciano) promptly purchases a piece of music from mysterious Mr. Pickett (Donald Pleasence) that turns out to be an unpublished composition by Paganini himself. An excited Kate recycles the song into a sub-Pete Waterman dirge she claims will be “the biggest thing since Michael Jackson and his Thriller with its fantastic video clip.” It’s worth pointing out that Kate seems to think those dancing zombies were actually real, bless.
Anyway, the band hire Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) - sadly not the guy from The Beastmaster (1982) and V (1984) - a famous horror movie director to helm their own “fantastic video clip” wherein Kate is chased through a spooky mansion by a demon violinist in a mask and black cloak, then gorily stabbed to death. Her lovely band-mates Rita (Luana Ravegnini) and Eleanor (Michel Klippstein) don’t even remotely convince as musicians, but pout rather magnificently. Meanwhile, the spooky mansion in question belongs to Sylvia Hackett (Daria Nicolodi) who stupidly neglects to inform everyone it is haunted. Whereupon an invisible barrier traps everyone inside while the real masked, cloaked Paganini despatches band members one by one with his killer violin.
What can be said of Paganini Horror when even director Luigi Cozzi denounced it as “the poorest film in the history of the cinema!” Well, maybe it’s not that bad but that’s certainly not for lack of trying. This film marked a short-lived alliance between Cozzi, producer Fabrizio De Angelis, trying to recapture the success of his zombie movies with Lucio Fulci, and co-scriptwriter/star Daria Nicolodi who revisits some of the themes from her earlier Suspiria (1977). Always something of a metaphysician, Nicolodi laces her script with intriguing theories about how the universe is founded on a musical structure binding everyone from ancient mathematicians to Paganini and contemporary rock bands together. She seems to be striving to make some point about selling one’s soul for the sake of shallow showbiz success, but makes a muddled argument with the songwriter being venal and money-grubbing while the producer is sensible and moral.
Cozzi later maintained Nicolodi wrote a “beautiful, ambitious script” and lay the blame on De Angelis “economizing on everything”, saddling him with a broken 16mm camera and one solitary villa for a shooting location. His set decorators stretch the threadbare production into realms of low budget surrealism with occasionally inspired use of coloured lights, weird décor (what’s with the giant hourglass?) and billowing sheets, while the Venetian locations can’t help but add a layer of spookiness. However, this is not Don’t Look Now (1973) and Cozzi is not Nicolas Roeg. His strengths lie in cheesy pulp science fiction, from Starcrash (1979) to Contamination (1980) and not horror. He strives for the same wilfully irrational dislocation of time and space that characterised Inferno (1980) and The Beyond (1980), but robbed of a strong guiding vision events lapse into the incoherent or else just plain inept. Things just, sort of, happen. Kate falls through a hole into hell. Marc burns to death. Eleanor morphs into a melting mutant (still clad in figure-hugging spandex). All seemingly at random.
Eventually, in a joke at the expense of so many Eighties parents’ fears about heavy metal music, Kate theorises that playing Paganini’s music backwards will send him back to hell. The nonsensical ending scuppers that theory, as Cozzi pulls an absurd deus ex machina out of the hat, then takes it all back with an equally dumb sting in the tale explanation of events. By far the only memorable moment is when Lavinia hilariously identifies the muck on Eleanor’s face as “a special fungus unique to the Eighteenth Century.” Wow, how many record producers have that kind of knowledge to hand. Well, maybe Brian Eno does…
Italian director of low budget horror, sci-fi and fantasy. Like many of his countrymen, Cozzi was quick to leap on the back of whatever Hollywood films were currently winning at the box office, hence films 'inspired' by Star Wars (Starcrash), Alien (Contamination), Conan (Hercules) and so on. Directed the 1991 Dario Argento documentary Master of Horror, and has worked on several Argento films over the years, including Two Evil Eyes and The Stendhal Syndrome. The pair also co-own the Rome-based movie shop Profondo Rosso.