Death Smiles on a Murderer

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domino harvey
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Death Smiles on a Murderer

#1 Post by domino harvey » Fri Feb 23, 2018 9:03 am

A haunting and dreamlike gothic horror/giallo hybrid, Death Smiles on a Murderer is a compelling early work from the legendary sleaze and horror film director Joe D Amato (Anthropophagus, Emanuelle in America), here billed under his real name Aristide Massaccesi.

Set in Austria in the early 1900s, Death Smiles on a Murderer stars Ewa Aulin, (Candy, Death Laid an Egg) as Greta, a beautiful young woman abused by her brother Franz (Luciano Rossi, Death Walks in High Heels, The Conformist) and left to die in childbirth by her illicit lover, the aristocrat Dr. von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Kill, Baby... Kill!). Bereft with grief, Franz reanimates his dead sister using a formula engraved on an ancient Incan medallion. Greta then returns as an undead avenging angel, reaping revenge on the Ravensbrück family and her manically possessive brother.

Presented here in a stunning 2K restoration, D Amato s film is a stately and surreal supernatural mystery which benefits from an achingly mournful score by Berto Pisano, several shocking scenes of gore, and a typically sinister performance from Klaus Kinski as a morbid doctor.


Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Original Italian and English soundtracks
Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio
Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
New audio commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas
D Amato Smiles on Death, an archival interview in which the director discusses the film
All About Ewa, a newly-filmed, career-spanning interview with the Swedish star
Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death and Transgression in the horror films of Joe D Amato, new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
Original trailers
Stills and collections gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Stephen Thrower and film historian Roberto Curti

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Re: Death Smiles on a Murderer

#2 Post by Banasa » Fri Feb 23, 2018 12:19 pm

This film would not change anyone's mind on D'Amato as a director, but the extra seem pretty strong, having Thrower, Curti and Lucas on this makes it potentially bursting with information, but the All About Ewa bit also sounds promising. I wonder how long the Ewa clip is?

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Re: Death Smiles on a Murderer

#3 Post by colinr0380 » Thu Nov 01, 2018 8:02 pm

I found this film fascinating and baffling in equal measures, but baffling in a really lyrical stream of consciousness way! If I had not had the Arrow synopsis of the plot on the back cover of the disc (or reproduced above) to describe the motivations behind the actions to me, I think I would be at a complete loss to have understood what was going on! This is mostly because all of the plot linkages between characters are heavily obscured, so for at least the first half of the film we see obscurely connected people doing inexplicable things before just as the viewer is getting their bearing, cutting away to more barely introduced characters with vague relationships to each other in the middle of doing actions which seem only motiviated in the most liminal of obscure ways (which is presumably how the couple of scenes worth of material featuring Klaus Kinski makes it into the film, which turns out to be almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the film, which was something that completely threw me on the first couple of viewings! He just turns up as a doctor to ogle a patient through a mirror and then stick a pin into her eye whilst she simply smiles at him. Even now I am unsure as to what relationship he has with the rest of the film - was he an associate of the 'scientist' brother? An acolyte? A rival in reanimation pipped to the post and killed by Greta as a side mission for his having uncovered her secret? This ox bow lake-styled material is both completely irrelevant and kind of the key to the film at the same time).

The main reason for this obscurity is that the explanation for the goings on is only revealed in the last ten minutes, which is an interesting inversion of something like an Edgar Allen Poe story or a film like Black Sunday, where it is often made very clear early on the crime committed that the characters then get targeted from beyond the grave for, but in this film that motivation is veiled behind layers of multiple flashbacks, generations of characters and jealous threesomes such that it feels as if the audience is constantly kept at a remove from anything resembling a 'plot' until the latest possible point, and then the explanation is provided in such an brushed past manner (some sort of Incan reincarnation ritual), that it is really impossible to take seriously.

This all sounds like a criticism (and maybe it is. I certainly would not recommend this film to anyone wanting a straightforward plot, as it might drive them crazy!), but I kind of love the way that instead of dialogue and plot we instead get long sequences of characters gazing at each other all to the wonderful Berto Pisano score, which swerves beautifully between huge, lushly romantic interludes and a cold glacial drone. It is as if the early sections of the film are built around the music rather than the other way around, with the dinner scene featuring Greta sitting between the husband and wife that she has separately seduced and exchanging flirtatious glances and smiles with each in turn (writing that makes me wonder if this is an exploitation version of Theorem! The sins of the parents visited upon their unwitting children?), as the score swells and we go into an incredibly complicated series of flashbacks from all three character's perspectives.

The way that this film twists and turns its attention from one character to another is something which makes it seem so bafflingly strange but is what gives it its extremely weird tone as well. We start off with a dead woman (Greta) being mourned by her brother Franz, who then flashes back to both raping her and then voyeuristically watching as she meets another man, with her both seemingly leading her brother on with incestous come ons (presumably because this flash back is from the brother's perspective) and enjoying being watched whilst she begins another love affair. The flashback ends and returns to the tomb with the mourning brother blaming the man for having 'killed her'. Then we cut to new characters and do not return to either the brother or the man Greta was kissing until over an hour later!

Then the film moves three years later (though you can only note that time gap if paying attention whilst Klaus Kinski's doctor is looking at the amulet Greta is wearing which has her name and 1906 on it, with him saying that it was three years ago) with a girl looking similar to the dead girl in the opening getting involved in a carriage accident outside the home of Walter and Eva. She is left with amnesia and after Klaus Kinski's putative doctor puts a pin directly into her eyeball without providing the courtesy of taking it out again to test her reaction to pain (?!?), and finds out her name is Greta she stays with the family for a while. Though the maid immediately quits (and has her own, never explained, visions of Franz) and gets shotgunned in the face as she tries to escape through the woods.

There is a quite evocative hunting party scene here, intercut with Kinski's doctor doing his own animal experimentations and getting hunted down (subjective stalker-style p.o.v. shots turn up here, as well as viewing Eva walling up Greta later on) in which the dubbed cries of animals overlays the action of turn of the century couples wandering through the forest and back again, whilst Greta and Walter hide away to declare their love for each other whilst some members of the party wonder where "Red Riding Hood" has gone off to! Then we get to the less loving seduction by Eva, who tries to drown Greta in a bathtub before declaring her love for her in the face of Greta simply smiling at her, much as she did with that doctor earlier on! Then we get to the wonderful dinner sequence that fully goes into action being set to the Pisano score (though really aside from three or four necessary lines of dialogue everything for the previous forty minutes or so has been set to the score!), as we see the various seductions from Walter and Eva's perspective. This scene goes on for a couple of minutes and is full of shots lingering on faces, eyes and mouths as people gaze at each other, and is strangely beautiful (I wonder if this is another film influenced by Tom Jones' dinner sequence?). This segues into Eva seeing Walter and Greta liaising together in a little cottage and getting murderously jealous. This opening half of the film is both the strangest way to open a film that I could imagine, but simultaneously is the section of the film that I keep watching over and over again, simply because it feels so strange and evocative and could be about to go into almost any direction! Aside from the impaled coachman, the scenes with Kinski and the murder of the maid (both of which stubbornly remain completely extraneous to the film), we could be watching a gothic romance or soft core sex film rather than a horror!

I will spoiler tag this next section of the second half of the film:
Suddenly with Eva's jealousy the film switches gears into something a bit more plot orientated(!) as she lures Greta into the cellar and bricks her up (using the thinnest possible bricks for the job that require about a hundred layers to reach the top of a doorway, I might add!). The mid-section of the film turns into both a strange version of The Black Cat and then with the appearance of Greta at the masked ball, a bit like The Masque of the Red Death, as Eva pulls down the bricks to find both a cat hurled at her and Greta already out, both in beautiful smiling beckoning form and decomposing ghoul form, ready to switch back and forth between them (and the cat form) at whim! Eva then gets pursued to her own death through the rooms of the mansion.

Then finally we get some connection to the events in the opening section of the film, as the father returns for Eva's funeral and he turns out to be the man from the early flashback who Greta was canoodling with in flagrant disregard of her brother peeping at them from behind that tree. He turns up to reveal (obscurely, through a flashback that pairs very well with the earlier dinner sequence as the funeral is intercut with Greta's apparent death in childbirth through some kind of painful operating table experience, where she only seems to be given anaesthetic at the very end of the operation, which seems rather late!) that he and Greta had a baby that was either stillborn or died during birth (or did Greta die during childbirth and that is why the brother blames the family for her death?), and then Greta pursues him into his own tomb and walls him up alive for eternity with the newly zombified Eva! Surely Greta is OK now that she has got her revenge on the man who (inadvertently?) killed her? Nope, she returns to the now completely alone Walter, who is both glad to see her then murdered by her and nailed against a wall in his underwear for good measure. Plus the other servant gets slashed up, just to ensure there are no witnesses presumably. But really its all about Greta being a kind of angel of death figure, beckoning each of these characters to approach, but that only means death. However she also cannot be run from either, so it kind of means death either way!

And then we are left with nobody really except the police inspector who is left forlornly trying to figure out why all these people were killed and finding nothing but a missing brother of a missing girl who was exploring 'Incan reincarnation rituals'. So the brother must be behind this, right? Yes and no, since in the best final twist the brother did resurrect Greta to do his bidding and murder the man who seduced her (and presumably his whole family line too), but Greta was still apparently bearing a grudge for that whole 'incestuous rape' thing that passed by with only the briefest of comment at the very opening of the film, and turns into a cat to spend a minute or so clawing his face and eyeballs out in graphic detail, before smilingly walking off.

There are some fantastic shots in this late section of the film that feature 'in camera' time transitions. One is at the end of the manservant being killed in the grain silo as we get a shot of him falling onto the (fantastically artfully pre-composed) blood pool and then in the same shot pan up to see the police inspector standing there. The other is after the brother is clawed to death and we get a shot of Greta pulling her hood up and smilingly walking out of the tomb, before the police inspector walks into the now cobwebbed three years later tomb to see the dessicated corpse of the brother lying there. Perhaps this is a different spin on a technique used with some of the shots earlier in the film which Tim Lucas in his commentary notes start off as seemingly objective and the become subjective (and I love the way that Lucas notes that second transition from the tomb past to present "spans the timeframe of the entire film in a single movement"). It is an interesting technique and one that interestingly had a bit of a resurgence recently with the parallel action, past and present action, pristine past versus cobwebby grimy present time period swapping going on throughout the Saw series!

Then we get the inspector back at home mulling over the supernatural events with his invalid wife before her wheelchair turns around and it is the youthful looking Greta in an old age wig looking back and smiling at him. Is the inspector seeing things? Has he become too fixated on the case and now death is coming for him too? Or is it nothing more than just a final zinger in a film that feels full of free flowing strange twists of imagery? Either way after a somewhat graspable gothic revenge mid-section, I love the way that this film ends by going into strange romantic weirdness all over again! Perhaps some crimes of the heart are just beyond the abilities of the law to understand?
Anyway, I both cannot casually recommend this film and think it is wonderful at the same time! Do not go to this just to see Klaus Kinski whatever you do as despite his presence on the cover he is barely in this, even if he does some of the weirdest things whilst there! But instead watch it if you want to see a bizarrely told romantic revenge tale and some wonderful combinations of soundtrack and editing to create meaning more than through the use of dialogue.

I also think that you can see a few elements here that would go forward into Massaccesi's later films under his "Joe D'Amato" name. The pursuit of Eva through the enormous mansion is a bit like the huge house in Anthropophagous (which also has its own issues to do with unfortunate childbirth incidents), and Greta is a lot like the monstrous killer figure played by George Eastman in both Anthropophagous and Absurd and has the same kind of mix of implacable relentlessness about her pursuit (though the figure in those later films is just as obviously influenced by Halloween as well), though she is allowed to prevail here. Plus the eyeball violence to the brother here is very like a proto-version of the same kind of effect used on George Eastman's character near the end of Absurd. Similarly the completely extraneous Klaus Kinski and maid murders in the early section of the film strike me as very similar to the digressive murder sequences that occur in both of those later films, where the spectacular drawn out death sequences become a means to an end in themselves, and spectacularly drawn out set pieces in their own right, going on for minutes at a time whilst the plot drops off the radar as being anything other than the flimsiest hook to build combinations of sound and image set pieces on (Pushed to that extreme even something like Porno Holocaust feels an understandable part of the D'Amato approach to filmmaking, as who cares about the backstory of the zombie terrorising the island when the film is much more concerned about fluctuating back and forth between hardcore sex scenes with a rotating tag team of willing cast members on that log on the beach on the one hand, and murder scenes on the other. In that sense the reasons behind why a well endowed radioactive native islander is murdering people is as unnecessary as the 'Incan reincarnation rituals' are in Death Smiles On A Murderer. Plot details are a means to an end (sex, death, sex-death), not really the end in themselves). In that sense something like the oppressively atmospheric drawn out exploration of the island in Anthropophagous is 'allowed' because the gory murder scenes are coming up to justify the lull, whilst here the almost willfully obtuse first half of this film is somehow 'allowed' because of all the murders that go on in the second half (and even then two murder scenes have to be shoehorned into the action in the first half in such a way that makes a first time watch even more baffling on trying to figure out what is going on, who all these characters are and how they interrelate to each other, if they do at all!). Which I guess is a long winded way of saying that Joe D'Amato might not inspire much passion amongst horror film fans, but all of his films certainly feel as if they bear his stamp on them!

I can see people feeling really negatively towards this film (strange choices all around, especially in the rather anachronistic fashions and hairstyles that in no way feel like the early 1900s!), but there is an ineffably strange quality to this film that has really paid off over repeat viewings. Plus I would love to get a get a copy of the soundtrack on CD some time!
Last edited by colinr0380 on Fri Nov 09, 2018 4:14 am, edited 1 time in total.

M Sanderson
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Re: Death Smiles on a Murderer

#4 Post by M Sanderson » Fri Nov 09, 2018 3:31 am

Nice mixture of poetry and sleaze. Surely d’Amato’s strongest, alongside Beyond the Darkness. Confusing, yes, but this is about mood over story. I was happy for the film to come into focus, when it was ready to. Very mournful atmosphere amid the exploitation trappings. Genuine feeling of loss, within the silliness. I like this a lot and agree with Tim Lucas’ recommendation of the film.

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Re: Death Smiles on a Murderer

#5 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Nov 09, 2018 4:36 am

Great comments M Sanderson, especially on the mournful atmosphere! It is interesting that both this and Beyond The Darkness are about people being unable to let go of someone long dead, and end up being destroyed by their memories of their cruelty to a person almost as much as by the monster itself! Which is why despite its general irrelevance to the rest of the film I quite like the material with Kinski and especially the truly tormented by weirdly tangible memories of some past trauma (with the shotgun to the face bluntly literalising the threat!) maid.

In some ways Massaccesi was making zombie films long before his more celebrated entries, and it is interesting to see Greta as somewhat of a forebear of George Eastman's almost immortal monster in Absurd, both created in obscure ways and then unleashed on the countryside to wreak havoc! And in both films it is kind of unclear as to what the killers get out of their actions except in a way simply to fulfil the needs of the film for spectacular death scenes! Even Greta's seemingly understandable quest for revenge is complicated by encompassing so many other tangentially related victims, such that it seems out of control and rather broad in scope, and maybe prepares us for the brother's actions unleashing this but finding his creation bearing its own grudge against him (so in a way the incestuous brother here is like the rather ineffectual priest in Absurd, feeling a responsibility to chase after the monster after apparently having created it, but unable to do anything more than arrive at the scenes of the crime too late to be of any use. Though Edmond Purdom's priest in Absurd is just as much a version of Donald Pleasance's, again mostly ineffectual, character from Halloween).

Tim Lucas's commentary on the film is, as always, excellent and full of information, though the highlight of the extras has to be that interview with Ewa Aulin, who runs through her thoughts about her entire career, making it a great companion piece extra to the Death Laid An Egg release!

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