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Greta (Ewa Aulin) is a beautiful young woman who is abused by her brother Franz (Luciano Rossi) and left to die in childbirth by her illicit lover, the aristocrat Dr. von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi). Bereft with grief, Franz reanimates his dead sister using a formula engraved on an ancient Incan medallion. Greta then returns as an undead avenging angel, reaping revenge on the Ravensbrück family and her manically possessive brother. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

 Death Smiles on a Murderer
Note that some of this review has been recycled from my review of Severin Films’ Blu-ray release of Beyond the Darkness (1979).

Among the many sleazelord kings of European exploitation cinema, two filmmakers stand apart for the sheer quantity of their output – Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco and Joe D’Amato. Both men worked for decades, through good times and bad, through ‘legitimate’ features and straight pornography. But, while Franco benefited from a critical reconsideration in the years before his death in 2013, D’Amato remains a black sheep in the Italian horror community nearly 20 years after his untimely passing. This sour reputation is, in part, earned by D’Amato himself and his largely lackluster output. From the beginning, he treated cinema as a job, rather than a creative outlet. This attitude led him to make movies as quickly and cheaply as possible, often using recycled concepts, sets, effects, and footage. He’s also the uncredited co-director/producer of Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990), which is remembered ‘fondly’ as the Best Worst Film in the world. But D’Amato had sort of fallen into his role as a director/producer following a lucrative career as a cinematographer, a vocation with which he actually excelled. Well, at least early in his career, when he put genuine effort into the process.

The horror community best knows D’Amato for his strange slasher variants, Anthropophagus (aka: Anthropophagous: The Beast and The Grim Reaper, 1980) and Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue; aka: Anthropophagus 2, Monster Hunter, and Horrible, 1981), his gore-soaked love story, Beyond the Darkness (Italian: Buio Omega; aka: Buried Alive, 1979); or perhaps his violent pornos, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead ( Italian: Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980) and Porno Holocaust (Italian: Orgasmo Nero II, 1981). These films have hard-earned cult followings and remain part of the exploitation pop-culture consciousness, thanks to their controversial content, but they’re occasionally slapdash execution (emphasis on occasionally) doesn’t compare to the more consistent technical artistry seen in Mario Bava, Dario Argento, or Lucio Fulci’s best work. However, D’Amato’s second foray into horror following 1973’s The Devil’s Wedding Night, Death Smiles on a Murderer (Italian: La morte ha sorriso all'assassino; working title Seven Strange Corpses, 1973), comes awfully close to earning A-list cult status.

 Death Smiles on a Murderer
Clearly, D’Amato was proud of Death Smiles on a Murderer, because it is one of the few films he made using his birth name, Aristide Massaccesi. He not only directed the film (solo), he also wrote its story, co-wrote its screenplay (along with Romano Scandariato and Claudio Bernabei), and acted as cinematographer and camera operator (as he often did on his own films). As the overlong title implies, Death Smiles on a Murderer is more or less an entry in the early, post- Bird with the Crystal Plumage giallo lottery. It doesn’t quite check every box on the genre list, but fits the mould with its many Edgar Allan Poe-inspired story beats, use of flashbacks, and semi-nonsensical, convoluted storytelling. Its closest cousins are probably Mario Bava’s near- gialli gothic chillers, Baron Blood (Italian: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, 1972) and The Whip and the Body (Italian: La frusta e il corpo, 1963), but there are also potent comparisons to be made to the more arty French-produced sex-horrors of Walerian Borowczyk and Jean Rollin. Like those films, Death Smiles on a Murderer is deliberately paced and more interested in exploring dreamstate imagery than evenly distributing explicit content over its 88-minute runtime. What really sets it apart from the typical giallo template, however, are the mad scientist/supernatural resurrection plot points, in which a Frankenstein-like family doctor (played by Klaus Kinski) discovers a re-animation formula. This develops from a seemingly unrelated subplot into a central theme, as D’Amato slips further into established giallo conventions, such as roving P.O.V. shots and unsolvable murder mysteries.

Though quite tame compared to his later work, Death Smiles on a Murderer sets an early precedent for D’Amato’s sense of uncanny sensuality, wherein genuinely sexy moments (again, tame when set against his future work) are tinged with insidious subtexts. This keeps the audience on edge during titillating and dramatic sequences, and even helps to define the characters themselves when the screenplay is otherwise unwilling. Gore is seldom used, but quite intense for the era, including a face mutilated by buckshot, a prolonged strangulation scene, a super-bloody facial slashing, a victim pinned to a wall through his shoulder, and a show-stopping climax where a man has his face ravaged by a cat. That last bit became a centerpiece of the advertising, donning the official poster in several countries, and was perhaps a partial inspiration behind similar sequences in Fulci’s The Black Cat (Italian: El Gato Negro, 1981) and Manhattan Baby (1982), though the latter featured birds in the place of a cat.

 Death Smiles on a Murderer
The key component here isn’t D’Amato’s typical mix of graphic sex and violence; rather, it is the film’s handsome production design, Piera Bruni & Gianfranco Simoncelli’s kaleidoscopic editing, and the director’s outstanding photography. D’Amato blends deep-set static shots with odd angles, almost nauseating fisheye effects, and (of course) zooms, that are disorienting in their own right, before Bruni & Simoncelli spin everything into dizzying expressionistic depths. While a big part of me will always prefer the stomach-churning insanity of Beyond the Darkness, Death Smiles on a Murderer’s technical strengths stand as an important reminder that D’Amato could’ve been a Bava or Argento-level talent, had he been more invested in his work. A few more well-financed, sexy period pieces could’ve helped him match Franco’s pedigree.

Video


Death Smiles on a Murderer was released on non-anamorphic DVD on a double-bill with Harald Reinl’s The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967) by Legend House in the US. In fact, all DVD versions are non-anamorphic, which makes Arrow’s Blu-ray debut an extra big deal. This new 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is derived from a brand new 2K restoration of the original camera negative. The results are very impressive, especially for a largely forgotten, low-budget Italian release. I see none of the typical issues that plague a number of other Italian scans, namely CRT noise and DNR. Grain levels appear natural and are rarely intrusive, no matter what types of light levels D’Amato is using. Details are also sharper than expected, especially during wider angle shots, and the purposefully foggy/diffused shots feature clean gradations. The black levels are quite rich without completely crushing softer shadows and the sanitized white levels remain relatively clean without blowing out. The muted colour palette also appears accurate, including consistent beiges, browns, and skin tones, alongside the occasional red, purple, and green highlights.

 Death Smiles on a Murderer

Audio


Arrow has included both the original Italian and English dubs in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono. Like most Italian-made films of the era, Death Smiles on a Murderer was filmed without synced on-set sound, so all audio tracks are dubbed in post. Each dub has its advantages and disadvantages. On the whole, the Italian track is louder and brighter, but features significantly more high-end distortion and buzzy dialogue. Meanwhile, the English dub is better balanced and significantly more consistent, but also much quieter, to the point that it sometimes sounds muffled. Personally, I opted to watch the majority of the film in English, due to its consistency and the quality of the dubbing performances. Berto Pisano’s moody, Morricone-esque music perfectly matches D’Amato’s tonal shifts and dreamy photography. Shock cues are minimized and romantic vocals/piano motifs carry the film through its oddest expositional sequences.

Extras


  • Commentary with Tim Lucas – The Video Watchdog editor and author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (pub: 2007) does typically good work on this solo commentary. He comes well-prepped with extensive factoids about the cast, crew, context, and production, as well as plenty of his own critical slant on the subject matter.
  • D'Amato Smiles on Death (5:57, HD/SD) – An archival interview with D'Amato recorded in 1998 as part of the documentary Joe D'Amato: Totally Uncut (directed by Roger A. Fratter, 1999) in which the normally incredibly modest director discusses his affection for Death Smiles on a Murderer.
  • All About Ewa (45:55, HD) – This in-depth interview featurette spans Swedish actress Ewa Aulin’s entire career. Her recollections are set against footage, trailers, and stills from a number of her films, including (but not limited to) Death Smiles on a Murderer, Tinto Brass’ Col cuore in gola (1967), Bud Yorkin’s Start the Revolution without Me (1970), Jorge Grau’s The Legend of Blood Castle (1973), and Giulio Questi’s utterly fantastic Death Laid an Egg (1968), which really deserves a Blu-ray release this comprehensive.
  • Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death and Transgression in the Horror Films of Joe D Amato (21:34, HD) – A new video essay about D’Amato by critic, Diabolique Magazine contributor, and editor of Daughters of Darkness (pub: 2018), Kat Ellinger. Ellinger specifically explores the director’s work in horror and where his films fit in the larger context of Italian genre filmmaking, but also covers his earlier erotic work and, most importantly, cinematography.
  • English and Italian trailers
  • Still gallery


 Death Smiles on a Murderer

Overall


Death Smiles on a Murderer proves that Joe D’Amato/Aristide Massaccesi was capable of technical artistry. Sure, he thrived on shock, but there was more to him than that, and his favourite themes were surprisingly consistent throughout his career. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray looks quite impressive, featuring two solid audio options and a strong collection of special features with experts, a cast member, and the late director himself.

 Death Smiles on a Murderer

 Death Smiles on a Murderer

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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