Friday 22 April 2016

Death Walks At Midnight (Luciano Ercoli, 1972) Blu-Ray/DVD Review

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“I'm telling you the truth – believe it or not!” Utilising much of the same cast and crew as he had done with his previous two forays into the giallo genre, Director Luciano Ercoli's third – and final – giallo film is less interested in murder and mayhem at the hands of a black-clad killer and much more taken with its leading lady. Having been portrayed in The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970) as a free-love nympho, Nieves Navarro (who would go on to spend the rest of her life with Ercoli as husband and wife) advanced up the ladder of gialli's roster of ladies in peril. In Death Walks On High Heels (1971), Navarro is portrayed with love as a far more rounded, yet still sexual being, whose forthright attitude enthrals or confounds the men in her life. However, in what was to become one of her strongest roles, Navarro (aka Susan Scott) kept her clothes on and her fists at the ready for Death Walks At Midnight, which could arguably be considered the 'girl power beacon' of the entire genre...

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“The junk you took is breaking down your mind – just look at you – a nice girl bombed out of her skull for a phony promotion gimmick.” Valentina (Navarro, All The Colours of the Dark) is a trend-setting model in Milan – independent, wealthy, and brimming with confidence. However, when her magazine journalist friend – and apparent occasional lover – Gio (Simon Andreu, Die Another Die) talks her into being the test subject for 'H.D.S.', a new mind-bending hallucinogen, her life spirals out of control. After descending into hysterics, her gleeful trip cuts into a blood-soaked vision of a woman being murdered by a man wielding a spiked gauntlet – as Gio documents her horrified expressions, having removed the mask he had promised would hide her identity.

“You're so naïve – sometimes you knock me out with your bourgeois sense of reality.” Shortly thereafter, Valentina is fired from her job and quickly discovers why – her fear-stricken face is plastered over the front cover of Gio's magazine, which goes into salacious detail of her drug-fuelled vision of bloody slaughter. Tricked and out of work, Valentina isn't shy about coming forward. She goes straight to Gio, justifiably flips out, and smashes up his office. Naturally, the police (or “the Gestapo” as one character refers to them) get involved, and while they go out of their way to dismiss whatever she has to say, their intrigue is piqued. The vision was real – a murder with a spiked gauntlet happened just six months prior – and not only that, it happened in the office directly opposite Valentina's balcony. Did she witness the event and suppress it, only for the drug to unleash the memory? The killer is in jail – a mental ward, in fact – but when Valentina meets Verushka (Claudie Lange), the sister of the murdered girl, she discovers that the killer in her vision – and the victim – are entirely different people!

“All the blood – I feel sick!” Stalked in busy streets and empty hallways alike, Valentina's insistence that the killer is out to get her routinely falls on deaf ears. Her artist boyfriend Stefano (Pietro Martellanza, The French Sex Murders) is more interested in bunking up than believing her, while Gio smells nothing more than money if he can convince her to write an exclusive article for his magazine. The police, likewise, are next to useless (a common giallo trope) – indeed, all the men display a wilful ignorance or disinterest that would inspire any sane woman to throw a swift punch or kick to hammer some sense into them! And herein lies the real strength of Ercoli's film.

“Profession – mannequin – model for fashions, photo romance, and advertising.” While many gialli feature the traditional 'victim' role for their female leads – their lives turned upside down by a sort of 'passive nightmare' from which they seemingly cannot escape – Death Walks At Midnight features perhaps the most powerful female player of the genre. In Nieves Navarro, Ercoli not only found the love of his life, but he found a woman more than capable of giving as good as she gets. The sexual politics of the film are fascinating. At first, Gio – driven by arrogance and selfishness – sees Valentina as little more than an object, dismissing her profession as frivolous, and yet his attitude is frequently countered by her with a spirited attack, whether verbal or physical. Here, respect and equality must be fought for, but it is a winnable fight.

Another scene, taking place in a mental asylum, juxtaposes institutional sexism while simultaneously devolving men to creatures of base desire when their faculties fail them. You get the impression that, even if their minds were straight, their wide-eyed assessment of Valentina would remain. When she does stumble into peril – such as a moment when an amorous van driver attempts to force her into the back of his vehicle – Valentina dispenses swift justice and goes on her way. Her lack of surprise at this event occurring, and relative ease returning to her business, speaks a thousand words – of the regular chauvinism of the time, and of how many women would readily deal with such things as a matter of course. However, the upside of her character's strength proves to be the film's downside in terms of being a taught thriller.

“Well, baby, the dragon lady awaits you.” Many other giallo films may feature women of variable capabilities, but none of them give Navarro a run for her money – she's simply too good at staying alive – and therein lies the film's major flaw. At no point does Valentina appear to be truly in peril. She gets into scrapes, of course, but she never circles close to death. The strong female/strong giallo mix was perhaps better struck in Death Walks On High Heels – although certain events rob that film of its strongest card. Other starlets of the genre – such as Edwige Fenech or Anita Strindberg – tended to be cast in roles that victimised their characters more, but in the same sweep afforded them a true sense of jeopardy. Although, it should be noted that both Fenech and Strindberg found forthright and complex roles in their own careers – indeed, both were afforded that opportunity in the same film: the deliriously well-titled Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (Sergio Martino, 1972). Back to Navarro though, a fighting chance is one thing, but when compared to the killer that stalks her throughout the picture, Valentina offers no contest – she could deal with them no problem if push came to shove. She's an arse-kicking heroine versus a surprisingly fragile-looking villain.

“You don't give me pleasure because you have features like a monkey – and you're crazy.” Similarly, the film's low level of menace (there's an awful lot of daylight, considering the title!) is also related to the vein of comedy from the outset. From Valentina slamming a door in a befuddled policeman's face, to the outrageously camp club fiend Jack, Death Walks At Midnight is light on tension but more confident on general entertainment. That said, Valentina's hallucination of the killer at work does prove to be a stand out sequence in the film, its audacious choice of weaponry matched by a liberal use of the red stuff. Strengths aside though, the script – written by Ernesto Gastaldi (The Case of the Scorpion's Tail) and May Velasco (story by Sergio Corbucci, Django) – turns weak in a mid-section that sags. At 102 minutes long the film is sorely in need of a few judicious trims, and the peripheries of the main plot result in a final act reveal that is particularly complex and loaded with exposition.

“Here in Milan they stare at me like a freak – I begin to feel homicidal.” For Ercoli's part, the presentation is strong (cinematography by Fernando Arribas), but the low body count and lack of bravura violence (unlike in his prior giallo Death Walks On High Heels) will potentially disappoint some fans of the genre. Few could ever compete with the set pieces of Dario Argento, but even still, the film strays more towards a psychological drama than a full-blooded thriller.

“You provided the attraction – he admired you – these men have normal desires.” Arrow Video's 2016 premium box set – featuring Death Walks On High Heels and Death Walks At Midnight (both in HD and SD) – is another example of the distributor's commitment to high quality releases for specialist viewing fare. Even the physical presentation of the set is gorgeous, with both Blu-Ray/DVD cases – and the lush hard-spine booklet – housed within a firm box featuring some of the wonderful newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx, who almost gives master-of-the-form Graham Humphreys a run for his money. Specifically regarding Death Walks At Midnight, the picture – preserved here in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio – is just as clear as its counterpart while preserving the pleasing grain of 35mm celluloid. The sound – featured in the original mono mix in your choice of English or Italian (with optional subtitles) – is nice and clear throughout, exhibiting only a handful of scattered pops or clicks. Suffice it to say, much like its boxset counterpart, this is the best the film has ever looked or sounded. Extras wise you get: 'Crime Does Pay', a 31 minute interview with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi; 'Desperately Seeking Susan', a 28 minute 'visual essay' by regular Arrow contributor Michael Mackenzie, which examines Ercoli's three forays into the giallo genre; an audio commentary by Tim Lucas, and finally the longer 'TV version' of the film (106 minutes) – which has been sourced from an SD tape.

“You go about flinging rocks at window panes to increase the sale of glass?” Weak in terms of a killer thriller, but especially strong as a vehicle for Nieves Navarro (her maturity and assurance steal the show), Death Walks At Midnight is all at once a highlight of the genre and a slight disappointment. If you want the classic image of a leather-clad maniac gripping a moonlight-reflecting straight razor stacking up bodies like it's going out of fashion, you're not going to get it. There are many elements of a typical giallo utilised from the outset, but the film's real draw is Nieves Navarro – fans of her work are rewarded with a feast. This is, in no uncertain terms, Navarro's film, an opportunity which the actress grabs with both hands and relishes from start to finish. Otherwise known as 'Cry Out In Terror' and 'Death Caresses At Midnight', ultimately Ercoli's film stands as an impressive – albeit flawed – slice of gialli.

N.B. Screenshots are taken from the DVD copy of the film.

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