Critics aren’t perfect. They can get it wrong sometimes, even before they’ve seen a film. Case in point - Armand Mastroianni’s The Killing Hour (aka The Clairvoyant). From the name on the credits, and the movie marquee artwork, this looks like your standard Italian giallo, murder mystery tinged with just enough gore to give Argento and Fulci a run for the redrum money. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s merely an American whodunit, the efforts of a filmmaker best known for featuring Tom Hanks in one of his first roles. That film was the sloppy slasher saga Blood Wedding, later retitled He Knows You’re Alone, and its tagalong success led Mastroianni to take his talent to a much larger creative canvas. Unfortunately, he’s only able to fill a tiny fraction of the frame.
It’s 1982, and Manhattan is overrun with unsolved killings. More importantly, the murder’s MO is the same - he handcuffs his victims before doing them in. As the police search for clues, local TV reporter Paul “Mac” McCormack believes he’s found the mother lode. Taking his morning talk show in a more tabloid direction, he feeds the public a daily dose of fear and foreboding. While Detective Weeks works all the angles, McCormick does his own vigilante legwork. Both men are drawn to the claims of a young woman named Virna Nightbourne. Gifted with psychic ability, she believes she is sketching out the deaths before they happen. Naturally, once she goes public with her visions, she becomes a prime target for the fiend - who may be much closer than she thinks.
Overlong at 97 minutes and burdened with a lame stand-up comedy subplot, The Killing Hour
(recently reissued on DVD by Blue Underground) is actually a pretty good serial killer caper. We get the mandatory slayings, some decent red herrings, a couple of deductive dead ends, and a resolution that tries to tie everything up in a neat, knockout denouement. The acting is universally good, with Mastroianni making excellent use of then unknowns Jon Polito, Joe Morton, Norman Parker, and established stars Kenneth McMillan and Perry King. If there is a weak link among the cast, it’s Elizabeth Kemp as Ms. Nightbourne. Aside from never convincingly delivering her own name (there seems to be a buried chuckle every time she utters it), her character is more schizophrenic than gifted with second sight. One moment she’s a mess, the next she’s flirting mercilessly with her main male leads.
Indeed, one of The Killing Hour‘s biggest flaws is our lack of sympathy for this heroine. We are supposed to see Virna as an inadvertent victim, sometimes plagued by images of death and innocent indirect knowledge. But she often comes across as a whiny waste, needy without indicating why she should be so cared for. Mastroianni never gives her a moment to shine, to stand up and show courage or consideration. She’s either sketching in some wild, automaton manner, or looking wistfully at the camera. There’s no variance here, no sequences of searing dramatics. It’s the same for the rest of the actors - these are some passive aggressive policemen to say the least - but the men manage some solid New York authenticity.
Another major misstep comes in the lack of legitimate scares. There is no real suspense here, Mastroianni simply leaps into the first three murders without any set up or sense of pace. Virna’s head games provide a few more slayings, but they convey nothing that fans of either fright or bloodshed can really appreciate. There are times when this all feels like a tepid TV movie, and it’s no wonder that this director would go on to excel in the broadcast medium. The Killing Hour is like a ‘70s era sweeps week special, down to the minor amounts of nudity and absent arterial spray. His European counterparts understand that this kind of genre junk just won’t work without ample gore. Mastroianni wants to get by on plotting and performances alone. He can’t, especially when one of our macho men is moonlighting as the world’s worst impressionist (these scenes are just horrid).
Oddly enough, this filmmaker does find more ways to succeed than stumble. There is a wonderful atmosphere present, a tone derived directly from the all New York shoot. This feels like the Big Apple in all its early ‘80s growing pains. Porn is still prevalent, as is a street level sense of sleaze. When Mastroianni shows a dimly lit dive bar, you can almost smell the urine-soaked musk permeating the room. Even better, the crime scenes play as real places in the bullet-riddled, body-strewn history of the city. When a corpse is pulled from the Hudson River, or a potential victim enters a midtown manhole, we experience the urban angst of every famed criminal case. For this reason alone, The Killing Hour is worth a look. Along with acting, it’s the film’s strongest point.
As for the DVD, Blue Underground does very little with this presentation except give Mastroianni a chance to defend himself. With company founder and fellow filmmaker William Lustig along to guide the discussion, we discover that this is one director who has forgotten quite a bit about the movie he’s made. There is lots of dead air in the conversation, Lustig trying and Mastroianni coming up short. There are some deleted scenes, none of them mandatory to the narrative, and the trailer is nothing more than the standard Madison Avenue pitch. Add in the filmmaker overview (some good information on Mastroianni’s later career) and you’ve got some unexceptional extras.
Unlike the Italian crime masters his name mimics, Armand Mastroianni is no Dario. He’s barely even a Lucio. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is very little of the Mediterranean in this wholly American moviemaker. The Killing Hour is loaded with ambition and does everything in its limited creative power to obtain those elusive aesthetic goals. While it’s well made and never totally dull, this is the kind of suspense thriller that could have used a few more trips through the typewriter before seeing celluloid. They say it’s never fair to judge a book by its cover. In the case of this DVD, the expectations brought about by the filmmaker’s name makes the eventual realization all the more unsettling.