Mar 8, 2009

DVD Review: Fenomenal And The Treasure Of Tutankaman (1968)

I’ll admit I was sleepy when I watched Fenomenal (sometimes spelled Phenomenal), so I’m not entirely sure if I just wasn’t paying enough attention... or if the movie doesn’t make a lick of sense. I suspect the latter, though. Fenomenal is a Diabolik rip-off about a black-suited hero/antihero who wears a black ski mask... with no eye holes! How does he see? Never mind; the movie isn’t concerned with that. Instead, its primary narrative gimmick is to keep the audience guessing as to which of the many characters is the masked Fenomenal, It’s a clever idea on paper, making a mystery of the hero’s identity, but director Ruggero Deodato (who would go on to make a slew of cannibal movies and a favorite sword-and-sorcery movie of mine, Barbarians, in the 80s–but is billed here as "Roger Rockfeller") doesn’t pull it off. It’s tough to watch a movie when you literally don’t know who the hero of it is. The result is a confusing mess. But if you’re willing to give up on the narrative altogether and just allow yourself to be assaulted by bright colors and a parade of images of beautiful women, heists, car chases, nonsensical fights, and particularly garish Sixties fashions, then you might just have fun with it anyway.

Unlike Diabolik, Fenomenal is actually a hero... kind of. When we meet him, he’s thwarting a gang of drug smugglers off the coast of Marseilles–and makes headlines for it. Apparently the populace likes Fenomenal. While fighting, Fenomenal is prone to fits of laughter intended to evoke Diabolik’s laugh, but it’s not entirely clear why. (One gets the feeling that for Diabolik, all of his thieving is really a big joke, but with Fenomenal one just gets the feeling he’s a slightly confused copycat.)

We meet someone named Gregory Falkov (Gordon Mitchell), a hulking blond, who might be a bad guy. Or he might even be Fenomenal. But most likely he’s a bad guy, because Deodato manages to cram both a floozie and a giant dog into his introductory shot, as well as a henchman of some sort lurking in the background. He’s talking on the phone about something, but exactly what is unclear. Meanwhile, there’s a gang of cat burglars using the tunnels under the Eiffel Tower to break into a museum. Is one of them Fenomenal? We’re never certain, but their heist takes forever–and not in a good, Rififi-sort of way, either. Eventually the museum guards hear Fenomenal’s laughter and it seems like maybe he is among the gang, but a moment later we realize that they’re actually guards themselves, testing their own museum’s security system. Why? Because the museum is displaying the famous mask of Tutankaman.

"Is it true that the mask has evil powers?" inquires a reporter.

"Yes, I believe so," answers Count Guy Norton (Mauro Parenti) matter-of-factly. Who is Count Guy Norton? That’s what I was wondering, too, because the movie hasn’t really bothered to set that up at this point. But apparently he’s got some stake in the museum or the mask. And he’s got a beard. And, like everyone else, he might be Fenomenal.

Rather than developing a plot in this movie, things just happen. (While we’re still in the dark about who the hero is and supposed to be interested enough to guess.) So rather than trying to summarize a plot, I’ll list some of those things that happen:

A woman named Anna (Carla Romanelli) in very weird mushroom hat uses cigarette lighter camera to photograph museum owner dialing his safe.

Another woman wears a dress that looks like it’s been made out of a lawn chair.

Blondie’s henchmen play soccer in a weirdly childlike way.

People fight for no discernible reason inside a women’s Turksih bath. Naturally, there’s lots of shrieking and running about.

Fenomenal himself stays out of the picture for about half an hour, then finally returns to steal the mask. Or maybe a copy of the mask; two have been made, making all the goings-on that much more confusing. Whether it’s a copy or the original that he grabs, at least Fenomenal’s presence livens things up a bit. He leaves a briefcase with his name on it in the mask’s stead, and then leads an exciting car chase. It’s the movie’s best moment, because it includes some impressive stunt-driving and you don’t need to know who’s involved in it or why to appreciate what’s going on. At the end, Fenomenal’s car goes over a cliff, but he’s okay, laughing his laugh.

Everyone’s after the mask(s), including our hero, but we still don’t know which one of these characters is our hero... which is a problem. It turns out that there are some hieroglyphics on the mask that reveal the location of another, even greater treasure. This shifts the action to the Middle East, where all the characters go through the same shenanigans they did in Paris.

In the finale, there’s someone in a helicopter and someone in a boat and they’re shooting at each other, but it’s not very clear who’s who. Fenomenal himself is involved in an underwater fight, and then in another fight on a boat, echoing the opening one so closely that I wondered for a moment if everything had been a flashback up until now. (It hadn’t.)
Fenomenal’s identity is finally sort of revealed, and it’s who we suspected it was, which is unsurprising enough to negate the whole "Who is Fenomenal?" device. If I hadn’t just seen Fury In Marrakesh, I would call the ending of Fenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankaman the weirdest I’d seen in recent memory. All the characters are on an airplane, heading back to France, and they hear ticking. We get a close-up of each one worrying. Is it a bomb? Nope! It’s a kid’s toy. There’s a quick shot of the kid himself (and he’s a creepy one) and then a fade to red. It’s weird.

Overall, Fenomenal presents an interesting and unique take on the masked hero genre by making a big deal over the mystery of who will turn out to be the main character. But the premise (which may never have been doable to begin with) is let down by shabby direction. It’s all just confusing.
So is there anything good about the movie? Yes, Bruno Nicolai’s score is reliably cool, with lots of "creeping music" and a catchy theme song. The fashions are all as eye-popping as we’d expect from a 1968 movie of this type. And there’s a fight scene in which one of the participants is in a wheelchair. So Fenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankaman would be a good movie to put on in the background at a party, or to watch while you’re doing housecleaning or something and want to be distracted by occasional cool visuals. But it’s not worth your time to sit down and actually pay attention to because it's a confusing mess. (So much so that at first I thought I must be watching a sequel to something I hadn't seen!)

The DVD I watched was included on the fifth disc of a twenty film collection called The Grindhouse Experience 2. The quality was not the worst in the collection (there were no foreign subtitles and it didn’t appear to be taped off TV), but it’s nothing to write home about either. In fact, it’s kind of lousy, and windowboxed instead of letterboxed. (But the set as a whole makes up for that with the sheer quantity of weird movies it provides.)


ultragoo said...

If you ever try to watch this again, notice our hero fighting on the boat. You may notice he is not waring any gloves. Then the movie goes on and on, until our hero is on another boat fighting thugs. After the fighting is over, he goes through a bag and starts to take off his gloves. They put the end of this scene at the beginning of the movie. So the hero wouldn't be shown, until 30 minutes into the film.

unik said...

great posting