Joe D'Amato, 1973
Starring: Ewa Aulin, Klaus Kinski, Angela Bo
After an accident that kills her driver, a lost young woman named Greta arrives at a mansion in the countryside. The married couple living in the house takes her in and become somewhat obsessed with her. Eva, the woman of the house, becomes enraged when she learns that her husband is cheating on her with Greta. She tries to kill Greta, but they begin an affair. When Greta won’t be faithful to her, Eva bricks her up in a catacomb below the house, but then sees Greta at a masquerade party. Meanwhile, a doctor who lives nearby performs disturbing experiments and discovers a formula that will awaken the dead and bring them shuffling back to life.
There is nothing quite like director Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles on a Murderer, which I absolutely adore. I would say that this film is certainly worthy of repeat viewings – just because I like it so much -- but in actuality multiple screenings are probably necessary just for you to figure out what the hell is going on with the plot. At times, the story is incredibly hard to follow, but somehow that doesn’t take away from the film. While any number of giallo films are described as dreamlike – which is basically cinephile code for a movie’s lack of narrative logic and/or an insistence on style over substance – Death Smiles on a Murderer probably takes the cake in this department.
This surprisingly bleak, serious meditation on sex and death can only loosely be called a giallo film. SPOILERS: What I believe is happening with the plot is that Greta is reanimated from the dead with an Incan formula on a necklace she’s wearing – which was given to her by her brother, with whom she was also having an affair. She wants to get revenge on a former lover and plans the proceedings to get back at him, meanwhile the doctor simply copies the magic formula off her necklace and uses it himself, which backfires and results in his death. Greta, however, is successful and kills off pretty much every single other character in the film.
With its supernatural and Gothic elements, a mad scientist, and the undead – and also some incest – this is sort of an “everything and the kitchen sink” take on the giallo film, which is exactly what you should expect from a director like D’Amato. I say “like D’Amato,” but really he’s one of a kind. This film’s directorial credit went to Aristide Massaccesi, his real name, though he often used pseudonyms (of which Joe D’Amato is the most famous). Along with Beyond the Darkness, this is some of his best work – though I also love some of his Emanuelle films, including Emanuelle in America and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, as well as Porno Holocaust, and Ator the Fighting Eagle. I have a deep and abiding love for this misunderstood director who was basically relegated to porn-for-hire work for much of his prolific career.
Death Smiles on a Murderer benefits from some solid casting, namely the appearance of blonde bombshell Eva Aulin (Death Laid an Egg) as the protagonist. There’s plenty of nudity on her end (literally) and though there isn’t a lot of violence, it’s used very well. For example, there’s an early scene where a maniacal doctor – played by Klaus Kinski -- sticks a needle through Greta’s eye, which is likely to please Fulci devotees and gross the hell out everyone else. For some reason I particularly love when Kinski appears as a doctor or scientist, though unfortunately Dr. Klaus is not in this film for very long – though just long enough to redeem his shockingly bland role as a psychiatrist in Slaughter Hotel and it sort of looks forward to the brilliant insanity of Crawlspace.
Even though it’s not perfect, I can’t bring myself to say anything bad about Death Smiles on a Murderer. It’s simply delightful. Pick it up on DVD to have your brains thoroughly scrambled by Joe D’Amato, who, as I said, includes as much as he possibly can in this dreamy, quick moving film that also contains my favorite cult cinema trope of all time – incest – which is not used nearly enough as a giallo plot twist or red herring. And D’Amato may be the only person to have made a film about an incestuous affair between a brother and a sister where the sister dies and is brought back to life – by the brother – with Incan magic.