CAPSULE: DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1973)

La morte ha sorriso all’assassino

DIRECTED BY: Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D’Amato)

FEATURING: Ewa Aulin, Sergio Doria, Angela Bo, Klaus Kinski

PLOT: Greta is dead. Greta is not dead. Greta is dead. Eva is jealous. It’s the early 20th-Century. H̶e̶r̶b̶e̶r̶t̶ ̶W̶e̶s̶t̶, I mean K̶l̶a̶u̶s̶ ̶K̶i̶n̶s̶k̶i̶, I mean Doctor Sturges tries some re-animating. Walter’s father returns. A cat appears. They’re brother and sister.

Still from Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTDeath Smiles on a Murderer plays out like a $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s a musical score that constantly suggests the movie will collapse into soft-core pornography, plenty of sudden and inexplicably violent murders, a cluttered timeline, and Klaus Kinski once more seeming as if he’s acting in an entirely different movie. Plenty of choice, yes, but the overall crumminess makes you question the six-dollar outlay.

COMMENTS: Swanning in just to grab his paycheck, Klaus Kinski adds a bit of his own supernatural allure to an otherwise pointless giallo outing.

Composer Berto Pisano keeps the audience on its toes as he veers between grunge eldritch Western guitar riffs and pornographic melodies, adding, at least in his own unique way, to the muddled horror experience.

Not one to be restrained by coherency, Aristide Massaccesi uses every camera trick he learned as a cinematographer to keep the image moving even while the story goes nowhere.

Falling into the realm of “so-bad-it’s-crummy”, Death Smiles on a Murderer ends up in that unfortunate “Fulci-Valley”: never good enough to merit much respect, never bad enough to inspire wonderment.

As you may have been able to tell from the above grab-bag of opening lines, there are about as many (dismissive) ways to approach this movie as there are reasons to wonder why the director couldn’t either get his act together or abandon it entirely. I’ve been sitting on this review for some weeks now, having let the experience of watching Death Smiles on a Murderer sit awkwardly in the back corner of my brain, and am only now taking up the challenge of completing it after some direct prompting from the authorities. Despite this very loaded start, I’ll do what I can to give this thing a fair shake.

Aristide Massaccesi (better known as “Joe D’Amato”) directed not quite two hundred movies over the course of his career, and unfortunately it shows. Even more telling is that this is the only movie of his that he was proud of enough to attach his actual name to. This twisted tale of Italian-looking, German-named aristocrats collapses shortly after the formulation of the premise: a young woman (Ewa Aulin) arrives at a villa (or perhaps more appropriately, a “Schloss”) after a carriage crash that kills the crazy coachman, having no memory of her preceding life. The nobles (Angela Bo and Sergio Doria) on whose property she crashes immediately take her in and, after having her looked over by the local creepy doctor (Klaus Kinski), both fall in love with her. As my opening sentence suggested, things almost veered into Eurotrash art-porn. Alas, they did not. I’m not saying I demand art-porn from all my ’60s and ’70s low budget Italian movies, but when the score demands it and nothing else is on offer, it’s a letdown when it doesn’t show up.

But what goes on? Everything that does, goes wrong. There are pointless fish-eye lens shots of a menacing hunch-backed psycho intercut with shots of a fleeing maid; endless corridors and staircases abound, advertising just how abandoned the castle site is; Kinski’s doctor character gets killed well after he’s gone off into his own sub-movie that involves both Incan black magic and Day-Glo re-animation fluid; and if I could talk about the insane cat-attack scene without breaking into a smirk, I might give it a go.

It’s a pity, too, because Massaccesi/D’Amato very obviously loved this film (expressing his pride in no uncertain terms in an interview included on the disc), but it’s more of a camera-man’s résumé (and a pretty weak one, at that) than a movie. Not even two additional screen-writers could save this incoherent and very occasionally ambient mess of giallo, genre, and Kinski tropes. But, I suppose I can’t say I’m unhappy I saw it. That’s about as fair a shake as I think I can muster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Narratively speaking, it doesn’t make for the most graceful of mash-ups: there are times when the asides feel so extraneous that you find yourself wondering just what they have to do with, well, anything. D’Amato doesn’t exactly provide the most compelling answers for some of them, especially the weird, wild digression involving Kinski’s doctor.”–Brett Gallman, Oh, the Horror! (Blu-ray)

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