Called — by its authors — a tribute to people led to ruin by the movies, “The Return of Cagliostro” is the acidic but amusing story of a declining American star who goes to Sicily to shoot a film, with disastrous consequences. Co-directors Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco have gone for gentler comedy this time with wider appeal to Italian audiences. Offshore, the main draw will be Robert Englund (aka Freddy Krueger) cast against stereotype as the single normal character in a sea of monsters. It’s not much, but it may attract interest from distribs in search of the offbeat.
With the leering black humor that has become their trademark, Cipri and Maresco — cult figures thanks to “The Uncle From Brooklyn,” “Toto Who Lived Twice” and “Cynic TV” — revisit the world of provincial filmmaking circa 1947. The place is Palermo, and brothers Carmelo (Luigi Maria Burruano) and Salvatore La Marca (Franco Scaldati), tired of fabricating religious statues, decide to become film producers. They open Trinacria Films, determined to outdo Cinecitta and put Sicily on the map. Their financier is an eccentric baron (Mauro Spitaleri) and their patrons a scheming politician and the obscenely named Cardinal Sucato (sucked) (Pietro Giordano).
If the Catholic church is pungently satirized and the political world derided, it’s nothing compared to the ferocious treatment given the cinema. Far from an affectionate portrait of post-war filmmaking, the story of Trinacria Films is one long tale of stupidity, incompetence and commercial disaster.
After a series of flops, the La Marca brothers come up with the idea of shooting a cheap rip-off of a successful cape-and-sword costumer about an 18th-century magician called Cagliostro. Erroll Douglas (Englund), an actor well down the road to Sunset Boulevard, is brought over from Hollywood to play the lead. He’s the only professional on the set, but he can’t communicate because no one speaks English.
The imbecility of the director (Pietro Giordano again), producers and gaffers who can’t agree on how to position a mattress for a stunt leap out of a window brings Douglas to an end that few of Freddy Krueger’s victims would envy.
First part of the film is full of surreal invention, such as dancing priests in the cardinal’s antechamber and oversized genitals on the nude statue of a saint. The film’s dark humor lashes out spitefully at everyone, leaving no character to identify with, until a narrator appears out of nowhere midway through the story. By the time American gangsters and Lucky Luciano turn up, the film has pretty much run out of ideas. They may stand for the takeover of Italian cinema by the Hollywood model, but it’s a weak metaphor without much conviction.
Dropping into the roles of Douglas/Cagliostro like a tailor-made suit, Englund uses his foreignness to distance Douglas from the Sicilian characters and his charisma to ironically bring the magician to life. Only two other members of the cast, the amusingly well-cast Burruano and Scaldati, are professional actors, and it shows. As in their previous films, the directors prefer quick, satiric sketches to developed characters, a rather limiting carryover from their TV work.
Lensed by Cipri in richly detailed black-and-white with bursts of color, film is eye-catching. Editor Fabio Nunziata gives the pic rhythm by intercutting fake newsreels and staged interviews with real film critics, while Salvatore Bonafede’s soundtrack is an interesting pastiche of period music.