Best-known for his numerous globetrotting Emanuelle films and a few notoriously gory horror outings, including BEYOND THE DARKNESS (a.k.a. BURIED ALIVE, 1979), Joe D’Amato was a prominent – and much-sought-after – cinematographer in the late ’60s and early ’70s before he embarked on his first ‘official’ directorial assignment, 1973’s DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER. It remains the only film he ever signed under his real name Aristide Massaccesi, and it’s a superbly realized horror gem, which not only incorporated hints of gialli, but some then-controversial sex and gore as well, which eventually became the raison d’être of D’Amato’s entire directorial career. Long relegated to inferior bootlegs and low-grade releases, Arrow Video’s eye-popping new Blu-ray will amaze most fans of this film, and hopefully generate a new appreciation for one of Massaccesi’s most neglected treasures from his vast filmography.
Bewildering, yet fascinatingly so, Massaccesi’s debut feature unfolds with a succession of loosely-connected scenes, which do, in their own unique way, come together in the end, fashioning this latter-day Gothic into one of the more memorable of the period. Attempting to properly put together a plot synopsis would be futile and ruin much of the film’s novelty, but the general outline revolves around Greta (Ewa Aulin), a mysterious woman who enters the lives of Walter (Sergio Doria) and Eva (Angela Bo) Ravensbrück after her carriage overturns near the castle grounds. Because she is suffering from what appears to be amnesia (“The poor girl’s mind is completely confused!”), Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski) is summoned and is baffled by some of his discoveries, which prompts him to return to his laboratory and begin work on a possible reanimating agent (“You’re going to live again!”). Meanwhile, a love triangle between Greta, Eva and Walter develops which unleashes the usual jealousies and, in a moment inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat (1843), the attempted murder of this mysterious guest. However, Greta has far more in store for both Eva and Walter, as well as Sergio’s father (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) too, all of which is somehow connected to her obsessive – and incestuous – brother Franz (played by Luciano Rossi, an actor who was pretty much exclusively consigned to playing unstable lowlifes for his entire career, often to memorable effect, especially in his westerns and crime films).
Beautifully aided by Berto Pisano’s remarkably lush and melancholic score, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER is a stylishly compelling film, which features only a minimal amount of dialogue, with most of the cast instead constantly casting suspicious glances at one another as Inspector Dannick (Attilio Dottesio) tries to get to the bottom of everything. Everyone’s behavior is tinged with an air of mystery and we are treated to a number of mysterious events, including the film’s unique opening moments with Franz kneeling over the corpse of his sister (“Dear sweet sister…They killed you!”), as well as a haunting stalking sequence in a desolate cemetery, and also one of the more bizarre screen deaths involving a possessed pussycat ever seen.
Never released on U.S. or Canadian videocassette, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (or as it is referred to on English language export prints, DEATH SMILES AT MURDER) was available in Greece on the Key Video label, and although that version was uncut, it seriously cropped Massaccesi’s ingenious camerawork, much to its detriment. The film was also available in Japan on the once highly-collectible Sony Video Software label in an edition which was also uncut, in addition to being handsomely letterboxed as well; like Key’s Greek release, the superior Japanese videotape version also came with English-dubbed dialogue and native subtitles. In the early 2000’s, Dutch DVD label Italian Shock gave the film its first DVD release, which was okay for the time, but it was non-anamorphic and featured an only mediocre transfer at best. In 2008, Legend House released the film on U.S. DVD paired-up with Harald Reinl’s THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (a.k.a. CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD, 1967), and, like the Italian Shock DVD, it too was non-anamorphic, but did feature a commentary track with American Cinematheque programmer Chris D.
In 2018, the wonderfully diverse Arrow Video decided to tackle this once-rarely-seen film, and the results are nothing short of spectacular! The original camera negative was scanned in 2K, and while the film itself is beautifully crisp and clean, it also preserves a normal amount of grain. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 tracks in both English and Italian are also greatly improved-upon from previous versions, which were hissy and/or poorly recorded. Arrow have also included properly-translated English subtitles for the Italian audio, which differ slightly from previous versions, which adds a classier veneer to the film, while the more-familiar English audio features the oft-heard voice talents of Carolyn De Fonseca, Richard McNamara and others.
As usual, Arrow have once again included plentiful extras, beginning with an audio commentary by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas whereon he discusses the film’s production history, plus many of the film’s principal actors and parts of their respective filmographies. He also talks about much of Massaccesi’s (quote) “modernistic” camerawork; Pisano’s (quote) “fluid and organic” score, which helps immeasurably to (quote) “carry the narrative”; many of the film’s (quote) “deliberately disorienting surprises”, and its rather ironic ending. It’s a solid listen, which will undoubtedly give most readers a better appreciation of Massaccesi’s distinct approach to this film. The most significant extra is All About Ewa (42m55s), in which the actress, in her first on-camera interview, talks about her entire career and her experiences working with directors Alberto Lattuada and Tinto Brass, latter of whom she describes as (quote) “one-in-a-million” and as someone who loved (quote) “life and sex”; her work on Giulio Questi’s DEATH LAID AN EGG (a.k.a. PLUCKED, 1967), Christian Marquand’s CANDY (1968), on which she was (quote) “showered with stars”, John Shadow’s MICROSCOPIC LIQUID SUBWAY TO OBLIVION (1970), Romolo Guerrieri’s highly-underrated THE DOUBLE (1971), and the present film. In Smiling on the Taboo (21m34s), a video essay filled with numerous stills and clips from Aristide Massaccesi’s films, Kat Ellinger discusses the filmmaker’s taboo-breaking career at some length with great affection and detail. A generous stills and collection gallery (7m20s) and the film’s English and Italian (subtitled in English) trailers are also included. For the disc’s first pressing, a well-illustrated, 43-page booklet includes a thorough essay by Stephen Thrower about how this film fits into his extensive filmography; a terrific piece by Roberto Curti detailing its production; and a previously unpublished interview with its writer / assistant director Romano Scandariato courtesy of Nocturno’s Manlio Gomarasca. This handsomely-packaged disc also features a reversible sleeve with new artwork by Gilles Vranckx along with the film’s lurid original Italian due-fogli manifesto art by the great “Symeoni”/Sandro Simeoni featuring a bloodied Luciano Rossi being clawed in the face by the killer kitty.