The Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set Review
Many of the films emerging from mainland Europe in the 1970s are regarded these days as "guilty pleasures". This is a term that I am generally reticent to use, as it has a rather patronising sound to it, carrying with it an implication that these films are somehow less "worthy" of genuine praise and criticism because they were created to entertain the masses and yet did not come from any of the major Hollywood studios. That said, in the cases of Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, two offerings by producer turned director Luciano Ercoli from the early part of the decade, I am more than happy to make an exception. Ercoli, who helmed three gialli in the space of as many years (his debut, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, will be released by Blue Underground at the end of the month), may not be able to boast the artistic eye of Argento, the sheer nastiness of Fulci or the social commentary of Lado, but his great talent - the ability to make his films just plain fun - is not to be sniffed at.
Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight have a great deal in common, and as such it is only right that the two are released as a single package. In addition to both films featuring largely the same cast in similar roles, they share a kitschy, laidback atmosphere which gives them a highly adventurous and almost farcical tone which contrasts sharply with the brutality taking place both on- and off-screen. As it happens, they are both also quite densely plotted, taking their cues not only from the giallo genre but also from soft-core erotica (in the case of Death Walks on High Heels), madcap comedies (in Death Walks at Midnight) and Spaghetti Westerns (witness the propensity for fisticuffs in both films).
The star of both films is Nieves Navarro, a feisty Spanish lady who, after featuring in a number of Westerns during the 1960s, married Ercoli, assumed the pseudonym of "Susan Scott" and made her giallo debut in his Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, co-starring alongside Dagmar Lassander. Following this entanglement with the world of black-gloved killers, she appeared in a handful of other gialli, mainly in supporting roles, with Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, and Maurizio Predeaux's frightfully dull Death Carries a Cane, being the only other gialli to feature her as the main star. Afterwards, she moved on to sex comedies before, towards the end of the 70s, turning to exploitation fare, with her appearance in Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals standing out as being particularly memorable (or should that be notorious?). She definitely had a very particular screen presence and a degree of energy that set her apart from most other giallo scream queens, and it would definitely be fair to say that her presence, more than any other single element, is what makes the two films being reviewed here so engaging.
Death Walks on High Heels
(La Morte Cammina Con i Tacchi Alti, 1971)
Nicole Rochard (Navarro), a Parisian nightclub dancer, learns of the murder of her father, a jewel thief, by a masked assailant with piercing blue eyes. Shortly afterwards, she is menaced by the same assassin, and, when she discovers a pair of blue contact lenses in the possession of her on-off boyfriend, Michel (Simón Andreu), she flees to England with an older admirer, Dr. Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff). Hiding out at Robert's seaside getaway, Nicole quickly attracts negative attention from the unsavoury locals, culminating in a visit from Vanessa (Claudie Lange) the wife of her paramour. The next morning, Nicole's corpse is fished out of the sea, but with a seemingly endless list of suspects, the stoic inspector (Carlo Gentili) doesn't know where to begin.
Most gialli are very much a product of their time, but, thanks to its focus on fashion, Death Walks in High Heels has dated more noticeably than most, and is all the more enjoyable for it. In his excellent essay on gialli, Gary Needham points to the camp appeal of the genre, stating that "while many giallo viewers await the ubiquitous Susan Scott's next undressing scene, many many others are waiting to see her next fabulous outfit" - a sentence that, I suspect, was written with this film in mind. In the first half of the film Navarro appears in so many different guises that keeping count of them becomes pointless, while also baring her buttocks on almost as many occasions. The highlight (or nadir, depending on your sensibilities) is an elaborate striptease which she performs in blackface, a sequence which only serves to highlight how different a place the world was 35 years ago.
More narrative-oriented than some of the better known gialli, Death Walks on High Heels takes a while to get going, with not a great deal happening during the first hour. At the midway point, however, the Psycho-like twist of killing off Nicole completely changes the dynamic and sets the main mystery into motion. Unfortunately, while the plot gears up at this stage, and the whodunit is effective, the loss of Navarro hurts the film, particularly given that no other member of the diverse cast emerges as a clear protagonist.
Despite its slow pace, however, the film remains interesting thanks to its picturesque locations (shot in France and England, although Dr. Matthews' seaside resort looks suspiciously Italian), and the presence of the ever-dependable Navarro. Here, her obvious talents are not exploited anything like as successfully as they would be in Death Walks at Midnight, with her falling into the typical "damsel in distress" role traditionally embodied by Edwige Fenech. However, she definitely brings her own flair to the part, flaunting her body, both clothed and unclothed, with unabashed glee and making her various love scenes seem remarkably steamy, despite the fact that nothing much happens in them. The film also benefits from a nicely laidback score from genre favourite Stelvio Cipriani, and brilliant Scope photography by Spanish cinematographer Fernando Arribas, which features some striking use of colour that makes most gialli look positively anaemic in comparison.
Death Walks at Midnight
(La Morte Accarezza a Mezzanotte, 1972)
Valentina (Navarro again), agrees to submit to an experiment involving a new hallucinogenic drug at the hands of a tabloid journalist, Gio Baldi (Andreu again). While under the effects of the drug, however, she thinks she sees a woman being murdered by an assailant armed with a huge spiked glove (incidentally, one of the finest giallo murder weapons ever created) in the facing apartment. Later, after losing her job thanks to the negative publicity her encounter with HDS attracts, she finds herself running short on credibility after she is menaced by the same gloved killer...
Comfortably the stronger of the two films, Death Walks at Midnight ups the ante by introducing an offbeat sense of comedy and providing a more ample opportunity for Navarro to display her talents (although, interestingly, she keeps her clothes on throughout and comes across all the more sexy for it). Indeed, with its Milanese setting, hallucinogenic elements and indeed the name of its heroine, it recalls in some ways Guido Crepax's Valentina fumetti (itself filmed, with some degree of success, by Corrado Farina as Baba Yaga). This is not a giallo that takes itself particularly seriously, and it's evident that everyone involved had a great time making it.
The film is actually quite remarkable in the depiction of its protagonist: Valentina is a feisty, determined woman who occupies the role of "heroine" far more comfortably than the eye-fluttering ladies that tend to populate the genre. Navarro, obviously having a ball, throws herself into this role of a spunky, sexy and forthright young woman with great gusto and dominates every scene in which she appears (which accounts for most of the movie). What is most remarkable about this portrayal is that Valentina is a strong woman who manages to retain her femininity - still a genuine rarity in cinema, and undoubtedly even more so in 1972. Indeed, it comes as quite a surprise that the script was co-written by Ernesto Gastaldi, whose weak, subservient female protagonists are a constant source of irritation. In fact, given that the heroine is so strong and the male characters almost entirely unlikeable, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch describe this film as almost feminist in its outlook.
It helps considerably that Navarro has such an excellent sense of comic timing, breaking windows, slapping faces and spitting out venomous put-downs with considerable gusto. She also has great chemistry with her co-star, Simón Andreu, who has managed to perfect the slimeball routine he nurtured in Death Walks on High Heels, coming amusingly close to providing a caricature of the persona embodied by George Hilton in so many gialli. Elsewhere, Claudie Lange, Carlo Gentili and Luciano Rossi all return from the previous film and add flavour, with Rossi in particularly proving to be a tremendously good sport in his role as a cackling, knife-throwing assassin.
Like its predecessor, Death Walks of Midnight is beautifully shot, with cinematographer Arribas employing a more muted colour scheme but increasing the depth and complexity of his compositions to compensate. The opening hallucinatory sequence, in particular, makes great use of the set design, demonstrating impressive framing that was completely destroyed in the earlier cropped DVD release by Mondo Macabro. Admittedly, the film loses a lot of its momentum during the second act, with a subplot involving two young Asian children not really going anywhere, but it rebounds nicely for a brilliantly-staged action sequence on the rooftops, in which virtually everyone - including the plucky Navarro - gets to throw a few punches or knee someone in the groin. This action-packed finale, in particular, shows the influence of co-writer Sergio Corbucci (director of Django), and sets it apart from virtually every other giallo climax.
Luciano Ercoli's films may not be the most substantial examples of the giallo, but in terms of sheer fun they rank very highly. I actually find them to be a great deal more enjoyable than any of the efforts of Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi, whose substance-free efforts are generally held up as being the best examples of the less serious side of Italian thrillerdom, and, especially in the case of Death Walks at Midnight, I am willing to state that Ercoli's output is easily among most entertaining material that the genre has to offer.
NoShame Films' Italian wing first released Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight in a bare-bones double pack in 2005. Both films featured excellent, detailed transfers, but unfortunately this release did not cater to English speakers. For their US release, NoShame have bolstered the package by including English subtitles and dubs, as well as various bonus features.
First, the audio. The good news is that the soundtracks for both films sound fine, allowing for the shortcomings of the original source materials. Unlike most gialli, these two films were actually shot in Italian, so I suggest that viewers forego the rather cartoonish English dubs and listen to the Italian variants. The subtitles are, for the most part, very good, corresponding to the Italian dialogue rather than the less nuanced English version. Furthermore, a serious synchronisation problem that were present in the Italian release of Death Walks at Midnight has been corrected here.
The news regarding the image quality is, however, somewhat less favourable. In my reviews of NoShame's Sergio Martino gialli from 2005, I expressed disappointment at first the use of poor PAL to NTSC standards conversions of the first two releases and, when this issue was resolved for Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key by adjusting the frame rate properly, at the poor scaling of the vertical resolution from PAL's 576 to NTSC's 480 lines, which resulted in a loss of detail and some noticeable stair-stepping effects on diagonal edges.
The good news is that these two transfers are more along the lines of that of Your Vice than of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and The Case of the Scorpion's Tail. Both are progressive and feature no frame rate conversion artefacts, but the stair-stepping is at times very obvious, and a side by side comparison with the Italian release demonstrates that a fair amount of detail has been lost. The results are definitely on the right side of watchable, and I suspect that most viewers with small to average sized displays will be reasonably happy. Those with higher-end equipment, however, are likely to feel a little short-changed. For what it's worth, Death Walks on High Heels fares slightly better than Death Walks at Midnight.
You can view an in-depth comparison for Death Walks on High Heels here, and one for Death Walks at Midnight here.
NoShame's Sergio Martino releases were quite well-stocked in terms of extras, featuring solid interviews with various cast and crew members in addition to the requisite trailers. The Luciano Ercoli set, however, is considerably more sparse. Interviews are nowhere to be found, which is a real shame, particularly given that Mondo Macabro's earlier release of Death Walks at Midnight contained a rather entertaining text-based interview with husband/wife team Ercoli and Navarro.
Death Walks on High Heels features the film's theatrical trailer, in both English and Italian variants, while Death Walks at Midnight is augmented with a TV cut of the film. Sourced from a video master in grotty, washed-out fullscreen with some serious tracking errors, it runs three minutes longer than the theatrical cut, with the additional material consisting of more scenes featuring Carlo Gentili as the police inspector. To be honest, I don't think that the additional material warrants watching such a poor quality version of the film in its entirety (and NoShame have not indexed the added scenes, making it impossible to go straight to the additional material). Both discs also include image galleries with a rather paltry number of poster designs and promotional photographs.
The big pull for this release is the third disc, a CD featuring a compilation of music from various films scored by the inimitable Stelvio Cipriani. His work has something of a laidback "lounge" feel to it, and it stands out from the material composed by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, whose styles were often interchangeable (unsurprising, perhaps, since they worked together for so long). Disappointingly, no music for Death Walks on High Heels is featured on this disc, making its relation to the two films rather tenuous, but a lot of excellent music is featured regardless, including a very nice stereo recording of the catchy opening title music for What Have They Done to Your Daughters? and a new edit for a piece from The Cursed Medallion.
The three discs are housed in a normal-width keep case which contains a double-sided tray to house the two DVDs, while the CD is located where the DVD would normally be found in a single-disc release. A cardboard slip case, featuring a rather naff piece of what I can only assume is supposed to be "modern art" (read: an MS Paint reproduction of the rather stylish poster artwork for Death Walks on High Heels), slides over it. Some people say they like it, but I personally can't see the appeal.
Two postcards featuring reproductions of a number of Spanish theatrical posters for Death Walks at Midnight are also included. Rounding out the package is a booklet featuring liner notes, biographies for Luciano Ercoli, Nieves Navarro, Luciano Rossi and Frank Wolff, and a track listing for the CD.
NoShame have clearly gone to a great deal of effort for this release, and in all fairness, these DVDs both look somewhat better than the most recent set of giallo releases from Blue Underground. They're clearly a very small outlet and don't have access to the kind of resources that the likes of Anchor Bay have; however, effort alone is ultimately not enough, and the fact remains that, in terms of transfers and overall aesthetics (the menus are extremely amateur, and the cover art is tacky in the extreme), they leave a lot to be desired. That said, both films are highly entertaining, and the inclusion of English subtitles and a bonus CD makes this release an overall more appealing option than its Italian variant.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:11:28