Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-06-12 14:18

Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: May 22nd, 2018

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Technically speaking, Death Smiles on a Murderer represents the directorial debut of infamous Italian schlock-master Joe D’Amato. However, as was often the case with that country’s legendary filmmakers, D’Amato had already been around the scene for years by this point, serving in both official and unofficial capacities for the better part of two decades—in n fact, he’d already directed (or co-directed) several features by this point that were credited to other filmmakers.* As such, Death Smiles counts as an official landmark, particularly since it feels like a precursor to a career that would become synonymous with trash filmmaking. While it’s a fair distance from the likes of Beyond the Darkness, Anthropophagus, or his Emanuelle films, this bizarre little shocker has some truly perverse impulses lurking beneath its elegant façade—it’s just that D’Amato suppresses them just enough to create the impression of an artfulness that would often elude him later in his career.

Given those warring instincts, it’s appropriate that Death Smiles on a Murderer is a purgatorial experience, suspended between both eras and genres as D’Amato coyly unwinds an obtuse tale about Greta von Holstein (Ewa Aulin), a girl who’s introduced as a corpse. We watch as her hunchback brother (Luciano Rossi) mourns over her body, as his memories carry us back to reveal his uncomfortably close relationship with his sister, who at some point took off with another man. We’re not privy to those details, though, at least not at first, since the film abruptly shifts to a horse-drawn carriage that careens off the road, gruesomely killing its driver when he’s impaled by a shaft. Within the carriage, however, is a mysterious young woman that we identify as Greta herself; her rescuers, however, are left befuddled.

This girl has no memory of who she is or where she came from, prompting Walter von Ravensbruck (Sergio Dora) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo) to call in a doctor (Klaus Kinski!) once they remove her from the carriage. With the exception of a strange scar on her neck, nothing physically ails Greta, who remains an enigma to the Ravensbrucks even after they allow her to stay at her home, a turn of events that coincides with both escalating violence and sexual tension. Not only are random people associated with the von Ravensbrucks brutally murdered, but neither Walter nor Eva can stop themselves from hopelessly falling in love with this mysterious, almost preternaturally alluring young woman.

It’s fair to say that Death Smiles on a Murderer is a bit of an off-putting, jangly sort of rhythm. This is a film that floats more than it unwinds, purposely puzzling viewers with its obscure plotting and digressions, a possible byproduct of blending gothic nightmares with the burgeoning giallo genre. D’Amato’s respect for his country’s traditional genre fare is evident in the dreamy, soft focus haze that shrouds the film, yet it’s certainly not a sacred text that can’t be scrawled upon with the chunky, fluorescent gore typical of the more contemporary, emergent splatter movement.

Narratively speaking, it doesn’t make for the most graceful of mash-ups: there are times when the asides feel so extraneous that you find yourself wondering just what they have to do with, well, anything. D’Amato doesn’t exactly provide the most compelling answers for some of them, especially the weird, wild digression involving Kinski’s doctor. His brief subplot feels like an import from another movie entirely, one that spins a tale of a mad scientist trying to resurrect the dead. Only a clunky, inner-monologue voiceover from the doctor lets viewers in on what he’s up to, and even then, this entire sequence feels largely expendable in the long run. Ditto for some of the unseen murderer’s victims, who exist only to be dispatched by straight razors and shotgun blasts—which is fine, of course, but it results in rather loosely plotted giallo, as red herrings and suspects are in short supply.

In fact, there’s never any real doubt that Greta is committing these ghastly acts, mostly because something always seems to be lurking behind Aulin’s eyes. At times, there’s a doe-eyed vacancy to her performance that paints her as a victim, effectively disarming both her targets and the audience who initially assume she’s simply an object to be puzzled over. As the film—and Greta’s tragic backstory specifically—lurches into focus, however, those eyes grow more sinister, eventually welling up with a manic sort of ecstasy once she commits herself to taking revenge on those who damned both her body and soul.

Most of the film’s twisted pleasures rest in the details that emerge as most of the characters begin to lose their minds. It’s here that you sense that D’Amato eventually found his calling, as he actually riffs on a handful of Edgar Allen Poe stories and twists them into a tale of incest and bloodlust that’s so perverse that Klaus Fucking Kinski doesn’t even register as the film’s most unhinged presence. Black cats and live burials abound, pointing the way to a feverish climax that doubles as an overture for D’Amato’s career: Death Smiles resolves itself with both gothic flourishes and grindhouse schlock, with the latter ultimately asserting itself out an otherwise dazzling, ethereal work that’s unlike just about anything else that followed in its director’s filmography.

*This arrangement would work in D’Amato’s favor a few years later when he became the master to apprentice Bruno Mattei, whose contributions on Emanuelle’s Revenge went uncredited.

The disc:

It’s a testament to D’Amato’s prolific output that home video companies are still reviving his work, even as our shelves have become absolutely stuffed with his work during the past two decades. Arrow Video has done the honors for this title’s upgrade to Blu-ray, which naturally holds added intrigue as the director’s official debut. Their release doesn’t disappoint: as always, Arrow delivers an outstanding presentation that allows viewers to choose between both Italian and English language tracks, plus the disc is loaded with extra features. Tim Lucas provides an audio commentary, while Kat Ellinger’s video essay “Smiling on the Taboo” further delves into both this film and other D’Amato efforts. A newly-produced 43-minute interview with Aulin features the actress reminiscing on her life and career, and a 5-minute archival interview with D’Amato from 1999 features some specific—if not brief—details about Death Smiles on a Murderer.

A stills gallery and a pair of trailers round out the disc, which is housed in a typically stellar package that boasts reversible cover art, liner notes by Roberto Curti, and an interview with co-writer Romano Scandariato. Whether it serves as of the final pieces of the puzzle for long-time D’Amato aficionados who missed out on the long out-of-print DVD or a logical starting point for newcomers, this edition of Death Smiles on a Murderer is certainly a welcome addition to any collection.
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