Saturday, October 27, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon - DEATH SMILES AT MURDER

This post is part of the Third Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by Kevin Olson's marvelous blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. I participated last year, and I'm very happy to be a part of it again. I don't know why, but when writing reviews of these films for the blogathon, I tend to use a goofier style than normal. I guess the films bring out that side of me. Also, I lean toward describing the plots in obsessive detail (including massive spoilers), perhaps because so many of them are next to incomprehensible. Read on if you dare!

The late Italian director Aristide Massaccesi directed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 films over a period of more than three decades, nearly all of them pseudononymously. The most famous of his aliases, and the one most commonly used when he's referred to, is Joe D'Amato, which I love, because isn't the whole idea of an Italian director using a pseudonym based on it not sounding Italian? Massaccesi worked in a variety of genres, but he was perhaps most prolific in the realms of horror and porn. He even combined the two on occasion, with such questionable films as Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust. Many of his straight horror films, among them Buio Omega (aka Beyond the Darkness, Buried Alive) and Antropophagus (aka The Grim Reaper), were firmly aligned with the glut of ultra-gory zombie and cannibal films that emerged from Italy in the late 1970s/early 1980s in response to the success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but his first foray into the horror genre, which was also one of his first films as a director (and the only one he directed using his given name), was slightly more restrained than his later horror films. With that being said, 1973's La Morte Ha Sorriso All'Assassino (aka Death Smiles at Murder or Death Smiles on a Murderer) certainly more than fulfills its quota of nudity and violence. It's a curious hybrid between the earlier Italian gothic horror films, which were petering out about this time, and the newer, more violent giallo films which would come to predominate the remainder of the decade. It's a far from perfect film, but from a cinematic standpoint, it's an interesting glimpse into where Massaccesi/D'Amato's career might have led him if he'd focused more on quality than quantity.

A peeping Franz
Death Smiles at Murder takes place in the early 1900s, and begins with a sweaty hunchback named Franz (Luciano Rossi) grieving over the body of his dead sister (Ewa Aulin), who isn't named right away. Franz experiences a few flashback memories of sis, the first of which consists of him sexually assaulting her, our first indication that their relationship was rather, ah, unconventional. Afterward, Franz's sister begs him to take her away from the place they live, which is apparently awful (apparently, her rapist brother has nothing to do with the awfulness). The second flashback is of his sister flirtatiously running away in slow motion, only to fall into the arms of another, older man as Franz watches jealously from afar. This can't end well, but we already know that, don't we?

One of the earliest traffic safety films
The film then cuts to a wealthy couple, Walter and Eva von Ravensbrück, having breakfast outside their palatial home. A coachman comes roaring down the road only to crash a moment later; he ends up impaled by a piece of the overturned coach with his guts hanging out (a favorite motif of Massacessi's as we would see later in his directorial career). Walter looks inside the coach and finds a woman, who turns out to be - surprise - Franz's unnamed sister. Either this is another flashback, or it's not. She seems to be in shock, and she's taken back to the von Ravensbrück estate, where they summon Dr. Sturgess (Klaus Kinski) to examine her (if your doctor is Klaus Kinski, I advise you to find another primary care physician, stat).

Paging Dr. Kinski

Hang on, you've got something in your eye
During the examination, specifically when he's listening for her heartbeat, it becomes clear that Dr. Sturgess discovers something out of the ordinary that sets his forehead veins to throbbing. He sends everyone out of the room and tells the woman to get undressed, because hey, he's a doctor. He finds an amulet that the woman is wearing, which says "Greta 1906" (apparently three years before current events) on one side and has some funky hieroglyphics or something on the other. She also has a scar on the side of her neck. Then he pulls a pin out of his tie and STICKS IT RIGHT IN HER EYE! AND SHE DOESN'T EVEN CARE! The effect here is so convincing that I'm not sure I want to know how they did it. Since people usually object when you pierce their eyeballs with sharp objects, the doc quickly confirms that something is definitely fishy here.

The ground chuck school of makeup effects
A debutante ball for a dead girl
Meanwhile, the maid, who has been spying on all of this, starts having some sort of bad acid trip and sees threatening hallucinations of Franz. She becomes so distraught that she gives her notice, packs a bag and runs off, only to encounter an unseen assailant with a shotgun who shoots her in the face, leaving her looking like she's wearing a facial mask made of hamburger helper. Greta stays on as a guest at the insistence of the von Ravensbrücks, who throw a big party to introduce her to the locals, even though they don't know who she is ("Hey, rich friends! Come meet this total stranger!"). Later, while on a hunting trip, Walter confesses his love for Greta, unaware that Eva is watching. During all this, Dr. Sturgess has been working like a madman, mixing chemicals and studying the formula he found on Greta's amulet. It's apparently a means of reviving the dead (did something just click into place?), and he successfully reanimates a corpse in his secret underground lab by sticking an IV tube into the dead guy's neck (hence a certain scar), but immediately after the guy sits up, the doc is strangled from behind by, yes, an unseen assailant, who also offs the doc's assistant for good measure.

"I'm sorry I tried to drown you. Let's make out."
Nothing bad ever happens down in the crypt
Later, Eva tries to drown Greta in the bathtub, then confesses HER love for Greta, because nothing says "I love you" like pushing someone's head underwater; nude lesbian hijinks ensue. In fact, nude hijinks of various persuasions ensue, as we're treated to an interminable montage of softcore sex scenes depicting Franz screwing Eva, Eva screwing Greta and Greta screwing Franz (remarkably, knowing what the director would get up to later, there's no three-way action). Eventually, things get a bit awkward, and Eva decides she's had enough. She tricks Greta into coming down into the crypt with her, where she walls her up alive (note to self: never, ever follow anyone into a crypt). When Walter gets home, Eva tells him that Greta just up and left, and they seemingly move on with their lives.

Not so hot for me now, are you?
The party's over
A month passes, and the von Ravensbrücks throw a costume party, at which Eva is shocked to see Greta. She chases her throughout the house and finally corners her, at which point Greta appears to her with a horribly rotted face. Eva ends up falling out a window to her death. Walter's father arrives for Eva's funeral, and - surprise - it's Greta's older lover from Franz's flashback. During the funeral, he flashes back to Greta apparently dying in childbirth and Franz looking none too happy about it. After the funeral, dad takes a stroll through the cemetery and stops in front of Greta's tomb. She appears behind him and tells him it's OK, she's not dead, Franz just made it appear that way. Nevertheless, he starts seeing her with a rotten face just like Eva did, and he takes off in a panic. In what is probably the film's most effective sequence, Greta pursues him through the mazelike cemetery, leading him to duck into a handy tomb to hide. He ends up locked in the tomb, which just so happens to be Eva's, and to his horror, she opens her eyes, sits up and advances toward him, as we hear his screams reverberate.

He didn't have to wait until the morning after to regret his decision
Back at home, Walter finds Greta in his bedroom. He starts to make love to her, but of course, she turns all corpsey on him and he flips out. Greta then kills the butler by slashing his face with a straight razor. The cops turn up and find the butler's body as well as Walter spiked to the wall with the amulet in his hand. Trying to figure out what the inscription on the amulet means, the Inspector takes it to a professor, who spills the beans that a student of his - Franz - was working on deciphering the inscription, which indeed contains an Incan formula for resurrecting the dead, but gave up after his sister died. But he didn't really give up, did he? In one last flashback, we see him three years earlier, just after he's resurrected Greta, promising to take her away like she asked. In the film's single greatest WTF? moment, Greta throws a bunch of flowers at his face that suddenly turn into a cat that claws his eyes out. The inspector finds Franz's decayed body and wonders to himself if he'll ever solve this case. (My guess: no.) Back at home, he's telling his old, grey-haired, wheelchair-bound wife the story as she sits with her back to him; suddenly, she turns around, I can't say it. You'll just have to see for yourself.

Death Smiles at Murder is truly an absurd film. At one point, the Inspector remarks, "I don't understand. None of this makes any sense," and that just about sums it up right there. Just when you think you're beginning to figure things out, random stuff happens that leaves you scratching your head, like the maid's hallucinations, the unexplained revival of Eva in her tomb or the flowers that turn into a cat. Despite its drawbacks, though, it's a highly entertaining, sumptuously made piece of trash cinema that holds up to repeated viewings. The production values are quite high, and it's beautifully shot, which isn't surprising given that it's the work of a cinematographer transitioning to directing films. The acting is fairly decent as these things go. Swedish actress Aulin, best known for appearing in the sex comedy Candy alongside such luminaries as Richard Burton and Marlon Brando, is the centerpiece of the film; the camera loves her doll-like beauty (except when her face is falling off). The lush score, by Berto Pisano, is quite accomplished, reminiscent at times of the music of Ennio Morricone. Best of all, the film contains some truly chilling moments, and though it's nowhere near the same level as Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil, it has the same sort of morbid, necrophiliac atmosphere in which sex and death are inextricably intertwined. Although Massaccesi would go on to make a handful of more notorious films (and a shitload of instantly forgettable ones), this one is probably the closest he came to a work of cinematic art.


  1. Nice review - this sounds bonkers! I haven't explored D'Amato's films as much as I'd like, and maybe this is the place to pick them up again.

    1. Thanks, Eric! It is bonkers, and it's a great way to renew your relationship with Joe D'Amato!

  2. Hey Michael, sorry for posting this here, but I didn't see another way to contact you - you commented a while back saying you'd be interested in the copy of This Book Is Full of Spiders... If you're still interested, shoot me an email at dollartheatermassacre at gmail dot com!

  3. So Greta was dead the whole time? Thanks for the explanation on this one! I also thought I would hate to call for a doctor and have Klaus Kinski show up! *shudder*