There is tragedy in every corner of the city of Messina on the northernmost tip of Sicily, just across the Messina Strait from Italy, the clear blue water and sun-filled skies offering no comfort to the Hoffman family, the tragic suicide of patriarch Edgar, the disappearance of his son Peter the following December, the mystery of one missing twelve year old overshadowed by the earthquake which struck the city three days later leaving thousands dead.
A hundred years later, there is also tragedy in the life of Professor Norman Nash, a disgraced archaeologist who has retreated from the outside world and buried himself in books since the death of his wife five years previously, but he is given a chance to redeem himself on a restoration project in Messina, excavating and cataloguing the ruined graveyard and chapels near the former Hoffman estate.
A new start for Norman and his difficult daughter Liz, she is justified in her resentment and in contrast to the scientific approach of her father has embraced spiritualism, hoping to contact her dead mother, but in the ruins and dark forests of the ancient city she instead contacts something else, a power which seeks the hidden grave of Peter Hoffman, gone but never forgotten.
Directed by Ascanio Malgarini and Christian Bisceglia from a script by Bisceglia, Cruel Peter is at its best as a Gothic melodrama presenting an atmospheric mystery set in the magnificent locations of Messina, the classical architecture, the overgrown graveyard and cracked statues, the black veiled woman glimpsed through the forest, ghostly image of the grieving Hoffman widow, the witch who forgave the misdeeds of her vicious son.
Catch’s Henry Douthwaite makes the best of it as the emotionally broken Norman while Zoe Nochi is the surly and defiant Liz and Katia Greco is his assistant Bianca, one of the many locals who conveniently speak English and also an expert on mysticism, while as Cruel Peter Hoffman himself Aran Bevan is a by-the-numbers junior psychopath, torturing animals and servants with equal disdain, gifted with the arrogance of money, breeding and impunity along with his cut-throat razor.
Less effective is when the film attempts to be a more commercial horror, the shock tactics of unnecessary decapitations and jump scares of the dripping black apparition of Cruel Peter attempting a generic possession narrative, though at least the attempts by Liz to open the door to beyond are more visually inventive than the traditional Ouija board, instead illuminating the way with “the Bishop Sphere,” and the setting is in itself a treat for those longing for foreign shores during lockdown.
Cruel Peter is available on Amazon Prime Video now