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DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER ***

Directed by Joe D'Amato. Starring Ewa Aulin, Klaus Kinski, Angela Bo,  Luciano Rossi, Sergio Doria, Attilio Dottesio, Marco Mariani, Giacomo Rossi Stuart. Horror/Thriller, Italy, 88 mins, cert 18.

Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 21st May 2018.

 

“I begin to doubt whether I’ll ever solve this mystery. Somehow it just doesn’t add up” ponders Inspector Dannick (Attilio Dottesio – SS EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP) during the final scenes of DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER, and it is a sentiment likely echoed by any viewer of this 1973 period Gothic horror after 88 minutes of madness involving reanimating corpses, a very intense love triangle, implied incest, Klaus Kinski being so intense the veins in his forehead almost pop out from his barely disguised seething anger, and a slight case of ‘what the butler saw’ voyeurism.

 

It is a strange brew to be sure but when you realise that credited director Aristide Massaccesi is actually the real name of cult Italian filmmaker Joe D’Amato (ANTROPOPHAGUS/BEYOND THE DARKNESS) then it starts to make sense. Well, as much sense as any of D’Amato’s movies do but plot oddities aside, the film actually stands out in the director’s filmography by looking quite beautiful in a way that belies the obvious low budget and also by creating the atmosphere of a classic Gothic tale, something alluded to by small details that evoke the likes of Poe and Le Fanu. That said, there are plenty of familiar D’Amato trademarks plastered all over the movie - sex, nudity and gore, of course – but it all feels a little restrained compared to the likes of EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK or EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD, to name but two of D’Amato’s more notorious sleaze-fests, and given that this was the first of his movies that he made under his real name then there is a sense that DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER was something of a passion project for the director rather than just a quick cash-grab.

 

However, despite having some glorious cinematography, an effective score and a solid cast the film quickly falls into the trap that most Italian movies fall into by making little to no sense. In the beginning of the film we see grieving Franz (Luciano Rossi – CONTRABAND) weeping and professing his love over the dead body of Greta (Ewa Aulin – DEATH LAID AN EGG), but it is soon revealed that Greta was Franz’s sister, prompting a flashback where the amorous siblings are running through the countryside together when Greta runs into the dashing Dr. von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi Stuart – THE LAST MAN ON EARTH) and begins a romance with the older man. Then things get messy as Greta turns up at the home of Walter von Ravensbrück (Sergio Doria – THE DOUBLE) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo – CURSE OF THE RED BUTTERFLY) when her carriage tips over right outside their gate. From then on in the various plot threads intertwine as Greta, Walter and Eva all fall in love and lust with each other, the von Ravensbrück’s GP Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski – NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE) shows up and realises that the amnesiac Greta may hold the key to the eternal life experiments he is conducting in his underground laboratory, butler Simeon (Marco Mariani – WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?) obviously knows more than he is letting on and just where does Franz fit into this bizarre tale of revenge from beyond the grave?

 

As the dialogue from Inspector Dannick implies we may never know because Joe D’Amato hasn’t just pushed logic into second place in favour of atmosphere, he’s totally thrown it out of the window; even the token exposition from Inspector Dannick that should tie everything up makes things even murkier than it was before but what is clear from the off is that dream logic and nightmare visuals are what DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER is going to rely on for its most exciting sequences to work, and on that level it does as the gore scenes may be few and far between but when they hit they hit hard, pushing the giallo stylings that the script originally contained into full-on horror territory. Thanks to this DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER has a little more appeal for those not attuned to the pacing and twisting nature of pure gialli, and who wouldn’t want to see what RE-ANIMATOR could have looked like if Klaus Kinski was cast as Herbert West? Bear in mind this was 12 years before that movie but perhaps Stuart Gordon had seen this and became inspired...

 

The 2K scan of the movie looks wonderful, displaying a level of detail that lifts the costumes and set designs above the usual Italian genre fare from the time and showing off the various shades of red that the fake blood comes in stark bursts of colour. Extras come in the form of an interesting audio commentary from author Tim Lucas, an archival interview with Joe D’Amato, a new interview with Ewa Aulin and a video essay covering Joe D’Amato’s career by critic Kat Ellinger so there’s enough material to give the film some context and background but overall, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER is at once a very odd film but one that is quite rewarding for those with a penchant for all things Italian, although if you’re a novice it may be a little too disjointed to enjoy to its fullest.

 

Chris Ward

 

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FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.
 © 2000 - 2018