Death Smiles on a Murderer

* * * - -

Messy but inventive and gorgeous gothic Italian horror.

Image of Death Smiles on a Murderer

Joe D’Amato/ Italy/ 1973/ 88 mins

Available on Blu-ray Mon 21 May

The notorious Italian director Joe D’Amato is infamous these days for his sleazy video nasties like Anthropophagus and Absurd, and his frequent detours into pornography, but his reputation is being somewhat reevaluated.  Helping in this reassessment are Arrow Video who are releasing his first foray into horror on a startlingly restored blu-ray.  Released under his real name of Aristide Massaccesi, Death Smiles on a Murderer combines elements of contemporary giallo films with elements cribbed from classic gothic literature.

Greta (Ewa Aulin) is a young Austrian woman in the early years of the 20th century, who has been abused by her brother Franz (Luciano Rossi) for years.  When she falls for a much older rich man, Dr. von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) she believes her troubles are over, but he leaves her to die in childbirth.  Franz reanimates her using a mystical Incan amulet, and she sets about claiming her revenge.

The prolific D’Amato first came to prominence as a cinematographer and it’s easy to see why.  The film is shot beautifully; the picture suffused with a soft hallucinatory haze that fits the surrealist nature of the storytelling.  There is more than enough dazzling imagery and bonkers plotting to sate the appetites of fans of more lauded Italian icons like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.

For a film that clocks in at a brisk 88 minutes, Death Smile on a Murderer demands the closest of attention.  The story is a simple tale of supernatural vengeance, but the narrative is a tapestry of non-linear threads that don’t all mesh together.  Coherence isn’t always a staple ingredient of a giallo diet, but even by the standards of that subgenre, D’Amato’s film is a demented jumble.

While this confusion stops the film from satisfying completely, if does rather compel further viewings; a state of affairs that’s hardly a chore.  With scenes that draw on Sheridan Le Fanu‘s Carmilla and Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Tell-Tale Heart, mixed with some gratuitous low-budget gore, this is a little delight.  Throw in the doe-eyed Ewa Aulin, able to veer from hurt innocence to smirking vengeance with virtually no dialogue, and an unnecessary, but memorable cameo from Aguirre-era Klaus Kinski (hugely at home as a quintessential Edwardian mad scientist), and we have another excellent curio rescued from obscurity by those genre devotees at Arrow.

Not quite a classic, but those who want a little period detail and gothic flourish as a change from the strip-lit interiors and be-gloved slashers of 70’s vintage Italian exploitation need look no further.