Arrow Video Blu-ray Review: Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)

Written by Claudio Bernabei, Aristide Massaccesi, Romano Scandariato
Directed by Aristide Massaccesi
Starring Ewa Aulin, Klaus Kinski, Angela Bo, Sergio Dorla, Attilio Dottesio, Marco Mariani, Luciano Rossi, Giacomo Rossi Stuart
Released July 11, 1973 (Italy)
RT 92 min.
Home Video Arrow Video (Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

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Knowing absolutely nothing about it, I popped Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973) into the Blu-ray player expecting, as the name indicates, another giallo similar to other recent Arrow Video releases.  I was surprised to learn instead that it’s actually a gothic horror movie that includes a few giallo tropes.  In her 21-minutes video essay, Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death & Transgression in the Horror Films of Joe D’Amato, Kat Ellinger correctly states that Death Smiles on a Murderer is “hard to classify in terms of genre” and that it takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to its story.

Said story unfolds using a dreamlike narrative in which I wouldn’t commit for certain to what is real and what isn’t.  Set in the early 1900s, Franz (Luciano Rossi) laments the wrongful death of his sister, Greta (Ewa Aulin), “They’ve killed you and I’ve done nothing to stop them.”  Flashbacks then begin to reveal what happened to her.  The order of events is unclear at first, but most of the story takes place at the country home where Greta awakens to find she’s been involved in a horrible carriage accident.  Any damage is deemed psychological rather than physical, and it’s recommended she stay until she gets better.

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Making this diagnosis is Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski), whose appearance indicates things are about to get weird.  His examination turns unorthodox, to say the least, and includes a sudden scene causing such unexpected discomfort that I didn’t have time to look away from the screen.  After this, as Sturges discovers Greta’s unusual pendant and begins mixing chemicals in his lab, I thought the movie was going to take a “mad doctor” turn.  This was the last moment I tried to predict what was going to happen next.  In fact, I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot so that anyone who hasn’t seen it can let it take them on their own journeys.

To understand Death Smiles on a Murderer, it seems best to try to understand its director, Aristide Massaccesi, who used his real name on this movie because, as he states in a 6-minute archival interview, Death Smiles on D’Amato, he actually liked the film.  More commonly known as “Joe D’Amato,” Ellinger calls him the “king of Italian exploitation film,” comparing him to Jesus Franco, his Spanish contemporary, because he loved horror as much as erotica and loved to shock people.  This explains themes such as fluid sexuality and incest included in the movie as a prominent part of a gory murder mystery, as well as gratuitous nudity.

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Death Smiles on a Murderer is excessively gory at times, but the “reality” of the gore is so slight that it becomes part of its surreal surroundings.  For example, when one character, whose purpose in the story remains unknown for me, is shot point blank in the face with a rifle… twice, the resulting injury looks more like it belongs to a burn victim with a bloody, bubbly face than someone who has, well… been shot in the fact twice.  The climactic scene, which is spoiled in some poster art for the movie, is the bloody culmination of a subplot that evokes Edgar Allan Poe, even for those with little awareness of his literary works.

The aforementioned giallo tropes include not only the “creative” murders described above, but also the lack of interest from the authorities who should be investigating them.  Inspector Dannick (Attilio Dottesio) makes repeatedly obvious comments throughout the movie such as “This is quite a mystery,” but does little toward solving it.  It’s odd, then, that the movie actually ends with him discussing events with his wheelchair-bound wife.  “It’s a strange and difficult case,” he tells her.  I’m going to say that he’s describing the movie, Death Smiles on a Murderer, itself.  It’s strange and difficult… but I think it’s worth watching to judge for yourself.

Bonus Materials

  • 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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