Death Smiles on a Murderer Review
The film opens with a man, Franz (Luciano Rossi) kneeling at the side of a dead woman, Greta (Ewa Aulin). It is not made apparent who these people are, at first, nor do we know their relationship but as the scene moves along slowly more information is revealed, Franz and Greta are siblings with a complicated sexual history. What is interesting about this opening is the use of the camera, it stretches space and distorts the frame enlarging the spaces between the mourning brother and his dead sister. Through this space that we are experiencing a subjective view of events and, in this dreamlike state, it is as if we're beginning to lose a grip on reality.
The best way to describe Joe D'Amato's 1973 film Death Smiles on Murderer (La morte ha sorrisso all'assassino) is as a Giallo horror film, filled with sex, death and a strange level of artistry. After the mysterious prologue to the film we cut to the house of Walter von Ravensbrück (Sergio Dora) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo). The couple are enjoying the afternoon sun when all of a sudden a carriage accident brings along a young woman who looks exactly like dead Greta (from the prologue). They summon a doctor to the scene to examine the mysterious visitor who discovers an incision on the side of her neck and a strange medallion engraved with odd inscriptions. At the same time one of their maids has strange visions of Franz. Once Greta, has recovered the aristocratic von Ravenbrücks invite her to stay with them as a permanent guest and the three engage in some extramarital love. There is definitely something strange about Greta though as other guests and staff start turning up dead.
I mentioned that Death Smiles on a Murderer had a certain level of artistry and I stand by that. Despite its incredibly low budget Joe D'Amato, who was the writer, director and cinematographer of the film, was able to work wonders with the camera. He can guide through this dreamlike world easily switching between the objective and the subjective camera. It is in this way that perspective is played with and D'Amato can draw an audience into the slightly supernatural proceedings and speaks to the talent of the director that he can play with us so effectively through this cinematic technique.
Coupled with this impressive camerawork is a pared down story with minimal dialogue, but one that drips with atmosphere thanks to the score by Berto Pisano, even if at times the accompaniment doesn't quite fit the action onscreen. However, there is a question quality of Death Smiles on a Murderer mainly due to its budget. This lack shows itself especially in the treatment of the film’s original main draw, the volatile German actor Klaus Kinski. His main scene is an extended improvisation, where his manic Dr. Sturges spends a good ten minutes pouring liquids in and out of test tubes surrounded by animals and other lab paraphernalia.
This is all clumsily edited into the main story as Greta and her hosts go hunting, and while those dreamlike long shots add atmosphere, they also extend a shallow story to feature length status. You can see this in nearly every scene, whether the climactic chase scenes, or just a character packing a bag, everything happens incredibly slowly. It appears that the film needed its violence and gratuitous sex to keep audiences attentive. Due to the lack of story, there is nothing for these actors to latch on to. Yes, we have the basic story of a revenant coming back to take revenge, but nothing that couldn'tt be boiled down to a 30-minute TV episode. Ewa Aulin, Angela Bo and Sergio Doria give subtle performances as the three lovers, but the only real standout is Kinski as the Doctor even when playing with props, he is still captivating.
The commentary track for me was the thing that made this release. It is provided by Italian cinema expert Tim Lucas and delves deep into the history behind the making of the film, the actors and the crew. He also provides historical context which places Death Smiles on a Murderer within a wider framework of horror films, and is indispensable; presented in an interesting and entertaining way. It is backed with an archival interview with D'Amato discussing his own film, as well as a 40-minute interview with the film's star, Ewa Aulin. Finally, to provide more critical context to D'Amato's career and Giallo genre, Arrow Video has included a video essay from Kat Ellinger. All in all, these extras perfectly compliment the film.
Outside the content on the disc itself and onto the thing that contains it. Arrow has provided the video track taken from a 2K restoration and presented it in a 1.85 aspect ratio with a Mono 1.0 audio track in both English and Italian, as well as English subtitles for the Italian version and English hard of hearing. Over all the disc runs smoothly with a limited amount of analogue errors on the play back and no digital ones.
Death Smiles on a Murderer is an odd one, mainly because I am still unsure if it is an example of high-end taboo-breaking art or a cheap bit of shlock that drudges toward a pretty lacklustre conclusion. If you have an interest in the works of Joe D'Amato, the Giallo genre or Italian Cinema as a whole then this will be a film for you. It is probably one of the better examples of the genre and the extras on the disc provide a great deal of information that will help you appreciate what it attempts to do.