Arrow Video: Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973) - Reviewed

Italian filmmaker/sleazebag Joe D’Amato (Aristide Massaccesi being his real name), best known for his work as a cinematographer on A Quiet Place to Kill and What Have You Done to Solange? before staking out his own territory through his horror/softcore and hardcore porno crossovers such as Porno Holocaust and Anthropophagus, is typically regarded as a purveyor of all things XXX and sexploitation.  Flaunting carnality with naked women aplenty, D’Amato’s name is synonymous with prurient cinema of the 1970s and 80s.  Which makes his first solo foray into the director’s chair, the gothic horror period piece/Giallo crossover Death Smiles on a Murderer something of a curious if not somewhat disjointed outlier in the dirty moviemaker’s catalog.

Mixing elements of Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill! with the tropes of the Giallo subgenre as well as some soft but notable amounts of sex and nudity, this oddly experimental, occasionally over the top and often visually stunning unfinished business ghost story vengeance thriller marks one of the few times in the director’s oeuvre that he served up something a bit classier and more respectable than his usual fare.  Starring the Swedish actress and sex symbol Ewa Aulin (better known as Candy) with Luciano Rossi, Giacomo Rossi Stuart of the aforementioned Kill, Baby…Kill! and an inspired cameo from Klaus Kinski fresh off of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Death Smiles on a Murderer is a near avant-garde series of fragmented scenes which gradually boil down to an unfinished business ghost narrative involving a young woman named Greta (Aulin) who appears to have died in childbirth…or has she? 

Often gory to the point of being laughably over the top and leaping about timelines and places with reckless abandon, Death Smiles on a Murderer is equal parts sloppy and splendid with some moments working beautifully while others fall flat.  Photographed by D’Amato himself with an inspired if not unfitting jazzy Grindhouse score by Berto Pisano (released separately on vinyl by Arrow Films), Death Smiles on a Murderer is equal parts Edgar Allen Poe with elements of The Black Cat coming into play, murder mystery and plain old drive-in trash.  Costume and production design is sound though there are times when some of the loose ends show in the editing, such as a couple moments where Kinski and Aulin amid their interactions break character just before cutting to the next shot. 

While admittedly the closest thing to a real feature film D’Amato has offered up in a career full of trashy blue movies, Death Smiles on a Murderer is difficult to gauge as the fragmented narrative with subplots and red herrings that are never paid off come and go along with scenes that work wonderfully while others don’t work at all.  The credits and poster are somewhat misleading in how they overplay Kinski’s involvement in the picture, who more or less takes a backseat to sex symbol Ewa Aulin strutting about either half naked or sporting decomposing facial makeup.  For newcomers to D’Amato, Death Smiles on a Murderer may be as good a place to start as any, but for this sort of gothic horror thriller subgenre I’m inclined to stick with Mario Bava myself.

- Andrew Kotwicki