Combining a genuinely tense cop thriller with well-deserved stabs at Italo boob-tube fare and celebrity culture, “The Vanity Serum” marks the successful sophomore feature of former musicvid helmer Alex Infascelli. Sleeker than his earlier mystery, “Almost Blue,” pic hones director’s feel for heightened tension and eases up on the gore, although a late miscalculation harms some of the build-up. This isn’t one for the arthouse crowd, but is a good candidate for a U.S. remake.
Most of the blood and guts are reserved for the first five minutes, when a homicidal maniac grabs detective Lucia (Margherita Buy) and they both sail out a window. Two years later Lucia is still nursing her wounds, physically and psychologically, and her tough, cynical exterior only partly disguises her fear of returning to work.
She goes back on the beat with ex-partner Franco (Valerio Mastandrea), and, while driving together, they stop at an accident site from which actor Rocco (Luis Molteni) appears to have been kidnapped. The m.o. matches an earlier vanishing: A syringe found close to the car is identical to one discovered near the site of a pop psychologist’s disappearance.
When yet another man disappears, Lucia and Franco discover that 10 years earlier all the missing men appeared together as guests on the “Sonia Norton Show,” a typical Italian chat program hosted by enormously popular bitch-on-wheels Sonia Norton (Francesca Neri). Three other former guests are still alive, including Azzurra (Barbora Bobulova), a cocaine-addicted ex-beauty queen who disappears from under Franco’s nose when he’s making arrangements for her protection.
Never one to waste an opportunity, Sonia jumps on the bandwagon and exploits the story once all the guests from that one program have disappeared.
Plot twists generously borrow from U.S. kidnapping thrillers, notably “The Silence of the Lambs,” and Infascelli knows how to build tension with judicious use of an antsy camera and anxiety-inducing music.
Character development is another matter: Lucia is given depth, thanks mostly to Buy’s intelligent performance, but the screenplay spends too much time with Azzurra, and then doesn’t manage to keep her character consistent.
Still, strong thesping on all fronts, including Neri’s spot-on interpretation of celebrity-maker Sonia, make for an enjoyably heart-thumping ride until the disappointing ending. Tech credits are tops, with strong use of disquieting sound effects.