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“So many corpses, and every death a mystery.” Most commonly known as Joe D'Amato, the prolific director Aristide Massaccesi (Emmanuelle and The Last Cannibals) only attached his real name to just one of his cinematic endeavours, the turn-of-the-century ghoulishly Gothic supernatural giallo Death Smiles On A Murderer. The Italian giallo movement wasn't best known for rock solid plotting logic, but Massaccessi's film dives head first into a zone of storytelling that can only be described as utterly baffling. Prepare for copious plot holes, taboo subject matter, an ethereal sense of time, and Klaus Kinski 'doing science'...
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“My dearest sweet sister, they took you from your brother and destroyed you.” Opening with a deliriously scattered sense of time, place, and continuity, the viewer is introduced to Franz (Luciano Rossi, Contraband), racked with grief as he mourns over the body of his sister, who is lying in state. In a bizarre succession of shots, revealing mere pieces of a complex back story, it is understood that Franz was not only jealous of his sister's suitor, but she was also teasing her brother in less-than-familial terms. As if that wasn't weird enough, it's also shown that Franz assaulted her, but that she was curiously okay with it after-the-fact. Yep – the WTF moments come thick and fast – and before you've even started to digest such an array of out-there complexities, along comes a charging black horse-drawn carriage that crashes outside the grounds of the von Ravensbruck estate.
“They killed you and I didn't do anything to stop them. I'm as guilty as they are.” Shattering the air of aristocratic niceties of afternoon tea, the lives of well-to-do Walter (Sergio Doria, The Violent Breed) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo) are thrown into disarray. With the coach driver dead – having had his skewered guts thrust out into the open air during the crash – the von Ravensbrucks look after the passenger, Greta (Ewa Aulin, Death Laid An Egg), who mysteriously bears a beyond-striking resemblance to Franz's dead sister. Examined by the buttoned-up, yet undoubtedly askew Dr Sturges (Klaus Kinski, Cold Blooded Beast), Greta has seemingly lost her memory. However, there's something far more unusual about her, as she doesn't flinch one iota as Dr Sturges proceeds to insert a needle into Greta's unblinking eye! What kind of medical test is that? Why did Greta not react in any way whatsoever? What is it with Italian genre film and ocular trauma?
The mystery expands as Dr Sturges discovers some kind of formula, etched into Greta's necklace, one which he proceeds to feverishly recreate in his lab – and it just so turns out that the formula can resurrect the dead! Meanwhile, the von Ravensbrucks' housemaid Gertrude is experiencing hallucinations of Franz, who was seemingly her abuser, but is it all in her head? Maybe just some of it? Or is she also experiencing some events from the POV of Franz's sister? Was Gertrude a housemaid elsewhere, or was Franz living on the von Ravensbruck estate? Time, memory, and perspective are all shown to be simultaneously unreliable, twisted, and revelatory – in other words, completely disorienting.
“I was watching the birds in the cages. They seem so happy, so carefree and light hearted, but are they really? And for a minute I felt just like one of them: a prisoner of something that is praying on me, something or someone who has a hold of me.” Greta is invited to stay with the von Ravensbrucks until she recovers her memory, but a love triangle soon develops, with stolen glances passing between Greta, Walter, and Eva – the latter of whom initially tries to drown Greta (seemingly out of envy), only to immediately profess her love for the curiously smiling woman. Again, the film trips into a world of weirdness, as Eva seems to be aware of her husband's love for Greta only to then be surprised by his secret tryst with the woman, an act which inspires Eva to lure Greta into the cellar, lock her in a room, and brick up the door – the spectre of Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat and the horror of immurement clear and present. Will Eva's secret be revealed? Will the truth about Greta come to light and make any sense at all? Just what the hell is going on, anyway?
“It's in my blood. I never miss a chance to hunt.” Massaccesi/D'Amato's key aim in filmmaking (as a director) was to shock his audience with sex, violence, and taboo subjects, all of which equalled profit. D'Amato, who also had a successful career as a Director of Photography with a speciality in hand-held camera operating, was honest in his arguably cynical pursuit of commercialism, with art (or a finely crafted screenplay) being of little importance. Indeed, the script for Death Smiles On A Murderer – written by Romano Scandariato, Aristide Massaccesi, and Claudio Bernabei – proved to be in such a sloppy state that it was constantly being re-written during the film's brief production (reported to be somewhere in the region of 7 to 14 days). Unsurprisingly, even after attempting to close myriad plot holes, the final film is still absolutely riddled with them. It's unlikely that many (or any) are intended, but the accidental mysteries that such nonsense plotting throws up suggest some very twisted minds behind the smooth veneers of the central characters – Greta chief among them.
Interspersed with frenzied moments of violence (a feline clawing out someone's eyes chief among them), Massaccesi's atmospheric giallo does manage to occasionally navigate its cobbled-together story and offer up some directorial flourishes that still feel fresh all these decades later, as seamless passages of time occur within unbroken shots. Massaccesi, who also acted as Director of Photography, similarly aims to throw numerous camera styles and tricks at the viewer to make the film's visuals as disorienting as its narrative. Extreme low angles, fish eye lenses, voyeurism, and that typically Italian fascination with extreme close ups of the characters' emotive eyes, blend as often as they clash with Berto Pisano's incongruously romantic score, which possesses an underlying sense of lamentation to suit the Gothic mixture of love and death that is tainted with hints of incest and necrophilia.
“I love you desperately and I can't live without you.” This was Massaccesi's sixth film as director, and it wasn't until 1975 that he would begin to frequently use the name Joe D'Amato, but many of the filmmaker's strengths and weaknesses are already on display. Death Smiles On A Murderer may be birthed from a frequently perplexing script and, even at 89 minutes, it feels over-long, but it is nonetheless intermittently effective with its jumbled themes and tone. The antagonist's motivation for revenge is unclear, to put it mildly, with certain victims appearing to be quite innocent and undeserving of such wrath, but perhaps the film is attempting to suggest that the toxicity of abuse is transferable and indiscriminate, and that certain realms are best left untouched. Massaccesi, who is perhaps best known for his 1980 video nasty Anthropophagous, never really achieved an outright masterpiece, although he did come close with arguably his best film, 1979's Beyond The Darkness. Still, it is undeniable that the filmmaker's work has continued to find an audience.
“It's completely baffling, this whole case.” Arrow Video's 2018 Blu-Ray naturally boasts a solid restoration, and is presented with the viewer's choice of Italian or English audio (with optional Italian or English subtitles). Extras wise you get an audio commentary from writer and critic Tim Lucas, an archival interview with Massaccesi, a career-spanning interview with Ewa Aulin, trailers, stills, reversible artwork, booklet (original pressing only), and a video essay from critic Kat Ellinger, which examines D'Amato's career.
N.B. Screenshots are taken from a lower quality SD source and not the Blu-Ray that is being reviewed.