Death Smiles on a Murderer Blu-ray Review: I'm Not Smiling

Joe D'Amato's first horror film is a strange mixture of weird, gore, and boredom.
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In 1973, Joe D’Amato, the Italian auteur behind such masterpieces as Anthropophagus, Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals, and Anal Strippers X-posed, directed his first horror movie, Death Smiles on a Murderer.  He thought it was so good he put his real name, Aristide Massaccesi, in the credits.  He should have kept the pseudonym and directed Anal Strippers 2 instead.

In a movie that stars Klaus Kinski as a mad doctor, who uses ancient Incan magic to re-animate the dead, and includes scenes in which a shotgun blows the skin off a person’s face, a cat that scratches the eyes out of another, and an incestual relationship with a hunchback, the most horrific thing about it is how interminably dull it all is.

It jumps back and forth in time, tells its story through various flashbacks and hallucinatory dream sequences which may or may not be real, and feels as if its been edited several times over and possibly pasted back together for various releases in various countries.  To write a cohesive synopsis of the plot then is nigh but impossible.  But my duty as a critic is to make some sense of it, so I shall try.

In the early 1900s in Austria, Greta von Holstein (Ewa Aulin) is perpetually molested by her hunchbacked brother Franz (Luciano Rossi). She falls in love with and is impregnanted by Dr. Von Ravensbruck (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) who deserts her once he finds out about the baby.  She dies in childbirth.  A few years later, the brother resurrects her using a magical medallion.  When he tries to get back to the molesting, she kills him then sets about murdering the entire von Ravensbruck family.

That hardly scratches the weird, blood-soaked surface of this utterly nonsensical movie.  There are some good scenes, such as when Eva von Ravensbruck walls up Greta in the catacombs Edgar Allan Poe-style only later to have Greta reappear completely life-like at a party.  Or when Greta seduces Walter von Ravensbruck into bed with her giving him a heart attack when her beautiful body transforms into a rotting corpse.  But the time spent between these wonderfully grotesque moments are so confusing, so dryly told, one can’t help but move the finger towards the fast-forward button.

Then there is Klaus Kinski.  He made this film shortly after the long, troubled shoot of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.  One imagines the relative ease and comfort in which Death Smiles on a Murderer was shot was a relief to the actor.  His performance here is subdued and relaxed, or as relaxed as Kinski ever gets.  His character doesn’t have much to do other than act a bit mad and try to protect the secrets he’s learned about re-animation.  His screen time is pretty limited and I’m not entirely sure why he even exists.

I should note that I watched this back to back with the three-hour long epic western The Big Country (plus a couple of episodes of Netflix’s Ozark series) so that I was becoming a bit bleary eyed by the time this slid across my screen, which may have caused the more ridiculous moments of this film to just kind of wash over me whereas were I to watch it again, perhaps with some like-minded friends and a few beers, it might be a real hoot.

Arrow Video has done a decent job of restoring the print.  It looks good for a low-budget Italian horror film from the 1970s.  Colors are warm, and the grain looks natural, most of the time.  There are a few blemishes they missed.  It's a solid presentation if not exactly perfect.  Audio likewise is decent.  They have included both the Italian and English language tracks in mono.  The English language track sounds a little boxy at times, but it's quite serviceable.

Extras include an audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a nice interview with Ewa Aulin about her career, a video essay by Kat Ellinger (which comes with a very funny list of films he gives spoilers to while discussing D’Amato’s controversial career).  There are also the usual trailers, stills, and a nice booklet with photos and an essay.

If you like this film, then once again Arrow Video has provided the definitive release.  If you are a hardcore Italian horror fan or Joe D’Amato fan, then this is a great package.  For everyone else your mileage may very quite a lot.

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