Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli Blu-ray Review: Arrow Strikes Giallo Gold

Though born in the early ’60s, only a few short years before various forms of psychedelic and sexual revolutions began to spin a seemingly stuck planet in circles far too fast for even God to fathom, the giallo film truly started to roll about freely once the 1970s came to pass. The titles were unabashedly long and lurid; the storylines both baffling and beguiling; the murders downright bloody, yet immeasurably inventive. These were the thrillers ripped straight from Italy’s sleazy pulp fiction crime novels boasting distinctive yellow (or, “giallo,” if you will) jackets which kept moviegoing audiences glued to their seats for well over two decades: reflections of a promiscuous and once prominent jet set society’s ultimate unraveling as mankind’s carefree indulgences and excessive wastefulness gradually caught up with them. (With gratuitous sponsoring by J&B Scotch, of course: a joke only gialli fans will understand.)

And of course, as I have previously mentioned in other articles, the Italians were not in the least bit ashamed to copy anyone ‒ their own selves included ‒ when it came to cashing in on a popular thread. Just as every putz with an iPhone and YouTube account fancies him or herself to be a horror-movie revolutionary today, anybody who so much as held a lamp on the set of a Mario Bava film for five minutes during this very proficient time in Italy’s motion picture industry sooner or later helmed a giallo. For a regular Giuseppe of a filmmaker named Luciano Ercoli ‒ who, like many other writer/directors afore him, had crafted a spaghetti western or two before the latest craze came to pass ‒ the giallo genre only resulted in his making a simple trilogy of terror, after which he retired from the entire working world altogether. But what an amazing contribution he left us!

A fetishistic and surprisingly bloodless offering in 1970 (sporting the wonderfully vivid, literal English translation of Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) reunited Luciano with his future wife, Italian actress Nieves Navarro ‒ who, like so many of her contemporaries, had recently adopted an Anglicized stage name in order to make European-made movies more “marketable” abroad. And that, boys and girls, resulted in Luciano producing and directing his final two entries in the genre, Death Walks in High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. With delightfully derivatively titles and the same strong pairing of the renamed Ms. Scott and Spanish actor Simón Andreu, this pairing of good old fashioned Italian exploitation filmmaking has made its way into the Arrow Video USA library, appropriately named Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli.

To the uninitiated giallo viewer (or perhaps you who are out of touch with the addictive phenomenon), the very opening of our first endeavor here, Death Walks in High Heels (La morte cammina con i tacchi alti, aka Death Stalks in High Heels) should make it clear what sort of road you’re about to embark upon. A man with bad grey highlights in his hair and an eye patch on a train promptly meets his doom via a hooded assailant whose eerie bulging blue contacts are stored on-screen for a freeze frame as both title card and wonderfully inappropriate funky Stelvio Cipriani theme song boot up. Speaking of “boot,” the main female character of our story (I don’t dare use the word “heroine”) ‒ played by the aforementioned Susan Scott ‒ turns out to be the striptease artist daughter of the pre-credit victim; her dance skills just as impeccable and coordinated as her late father’s ability to defend himself.

Seriously, the woman can’t dance. But that goes flying out the window once we see her less-than-graceful talent in action as she performs a minstrel striptease. Anyway, as it turns out, daddy dearest was in fact a notorious diamond thief; his final act of thievery allegedly resulting in a large fortune that would ultimately prove to be his undoing. Death, however, does not dissuade the hooded blue-eyed killer’s quest for the blood money in question, and he soon sets his contact-covered orbs on Ms. Scott’s easy-on-the-eyes (even ones with painful lenses on them) figure in the hopes she knows where the goods are stashed. She does not, however, and it isn’t long before the madman is following our gal from Paris to a rural seaside English community where gialli regular George Rigaud (which reminds me: When do we get Umberto Lenzi’s Eyeball on Blu-ray, Arrow?) and frequent Paul Naschy co-star José Manuel Martín (in what is probably his largest and most satisfying role) await.

American-born actor Frank Wolff (who portrayed the doomed Brett McBain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and who would leave this world by his own hand less than a month after Death Walks in High Heels made its theatrical debut in Italy) shines here as the top-billed performer, who escalates from bit part character in the background to full-fledged lead throughout the course of the oddly-constructed film. And I call it that because, strangely, Death Walks in High Heels almost seems like a prequel to its own story. The first third (or maybe even half) of the feature established a backstory which most movies of the same calibre establish (and subsequently execute) before the first moonless night passes; its generously introduced characters (Scott and Andreu) soon fading into the background as a comical Scotland Yard inspector (Carlo Gentili) and his protégé (Fabrizio Moresco) investigate the increasing number of deaths of plot twists.

Though the finished work shows definite signs of some rough edges, Death Walks in High Heels still manages to teach us how to walk like a professional executor in elevated footwear. Ercoli knows when to pull his punches and when to throw him, keeping us on our guard via a screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi (who also penned The Kidnap Syndicate, and my personal favorite Italian post-apocalyptic flick, 2019: After the Fall of New York) and Mahnahén Velasco (Who Can Kill a Child?). Why, even well after we first cast our initial suspicions as to whodunit, Ercoli and Company soon cause us to reconsider as the story, its characters, and even the general tone of the film shifts gears like, well, someone trying to drive a semi in high heels. The recommended entry ‒ which, amazingly enough, I had never seen before ‒ also features former Belgian model Claudie Lange in a guest starring role (you can always spot an Italian movie by its on-screen credit for a “guest star” in a theatrical motion picture; today, their name gets a nice bold rectangular outline on the movie poster) as a victim (naturally).

Nearly a year to the day after Death Walks in High Heels first hit screens, the late Frank Wolff had managed to make two more posthumous appearances in Italian cinema, while Luciano Ercoli followed up his previous pictorial puzzlers with a similarly-titled endeavor best known today by English speakers as Death Walks at Midnight (aka La morte accarezza a mezzanotte). However, for its initial, limited international (read: English-language) release, the film received the name Cry Out in Terror ‒ presumably to avoid any disorientation that has, unsurprisingly, formed over the years by people who get both of the movies from this set confused with one another. I suppose it doesn’t help any that Death Walks at Midnight features a lot of the same cast and crew, including Claudie Lange (once again cast in a “guest starring” role which wraps up with her getting killed off) and Carlo Gentili, who ‒ once again ‒ plays a cynical detective!

Moving up the cast list to top-billed star this time, Susan Scott also escalates up the female giallo character ladder from striptease artist to fashion model. The story opens with not only an exemplary look at the swinging decor of the period (sorry, but we will never top that ‒ never, ever) who, at the behest of her sensationalist tabloid reporter pal (Mr. Andreu, this time in the second-billed spotlight) agrees to inject an experimental hallucinogenic as part of a bizarre (but normal in the world of gialli) pictorial. During her trip, Susan sees more than just swirly lights and trails: she also witnesses a brutal murder in an apartment across the alley from hers by a creepy-looking feller sporting a medieval-style armored glove with spikes protruding from the fist! Naturally, nobody believes her: not the police, her journalist friend, or even her beloved bohemian artist boyfriend (Pietro Martellanza, appearing under his shortened, anglicized pseudonym, Peter Martell).

Her drug-induced observation, naturally, warrants nothing but skepticism from all who hear the tale, especially once she learns there was a murder committed in the apartment six months before. But when Susan learns the victim and assailant of the previous crime were not the same people she saw in her vision, the aura of doubt is overtaken by a very real and present danger once the killer from her supposed dream ‒ who looks like David Hemmings (the protagonist of Dario Argento’s classic giallo Deep Red) portraying diminutive cult Italian horror figure Peter Bark ‒ appears in the picture. Even then, no one wants to believe her, save for a few mysterious freaks (such as a mentally deficient Ms. Lange and a pale-faced Fabrizio Moresco, who looks like he just walked out of Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) who vanish as swiftly as they appear. And yet, despite the ever-looming danger, our heroine still finds time to attend kick-ass swinger parties in one of the greatest European nightclubs ever seen on film.

Normally, a clear shot of the tale’s killer makes one wonder if they’re not about to witness a howcatchem as opposed to a whodunit. In a giallo, though ‒ generally speaking ‒ nothing is ever as it initially seems. And, just as Ercoli proved by shifting suspicions in Death Walks in High Heels, the many strange characters written into Death Walks at Midnight (and believe me, there are some bizarre ones running about here ‒ most notably a minor knife-throwing heavy who looks like Kurt Cobain, and whose English dubbed voice is that of a bad Peter Lorre imitation), a great score by Gianni Ferrio, and an unpredictably wild script by signoris Gastaldi and Velasco once again, this time from a story by spaghetti western maestro Sergio Corbucci (creator of both Django and They Call Me Trinity!), whose touch is apparent throughout. In short, it’s another recommended ride for enthusiasts and rookies alike.

Arrow Video has once again struck gold with this handsomely constructed box set, which follows on the heels (heh) of last year’s two-film set Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats and lays down the catwalk (ha-ha, because the cats and walking bits, you see…) for the forthcoming Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (lest we forget equally recommended single-film offerings of other classic gialli, What Have You Done to Solange? and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key). The four-disc set (both films sport BD and DVD versions) presents beautiful new transfers of these Italian/Spanish productions from an era of filmmaking unlike any other, replete with Italian and English audio options (I always go for the English dubbing, as it adds a certain element of etherealism to the already strange worlds gialli are set in), with removable English subtitles for both tracks.

Arrow even gives us the option of viewing both movies with their original Italian credits or their English-language counterparts (and naughty-minded folks such as myself will surely chuckle aloud when you see the “Interiors filmed at…” caption for Death Walks in High Heels‘ English credits, which could very well have been deliberate on the export version’s makers’ part!). Film critic/genre enthusiast and Video Watchdog founder/editor Tim Lucas weighs in his thoughts for both titles via an audio commentary track. The Limited Edition set (only 3,000 copies, kids) includes an illustrated 60-page booklet featuring hearty written contributions from authors/historians Danny Shipka, Troy Howarth, and Leonard Jacobs, all of which is housed in a sturdy cardboard box akin to the American Horror Project, Vol. 1 release I had the pleasure of covering previously.

In terms of special features, Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli hosts new introductions to both titles by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Mr. Ercoli, sadly, passed away in March of 2015, but an archival interview with he and Nieves Navarro (aka Susan Scott, in case you forgot already) has been assembled and is available on Death Walks in High Heels. Both releases feature new interviews with Signori Gastaldi and reversible artwork by Gilles Vranckx. Additional bonus materials consist of an interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani and psychedelic domestic (Italian) and international (English) trailers for the first film (the one in footwear), and a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie focusing on the collaborations of Luciano Ercoli and Nieves Navarro for the second flick (the nocturnal one). A rare pan-and-scan Italian TV cut of Death Walks at Midnight is also included (with optional English subtitles) for diehard fans.

Bottom Line: Whether you are an experienced giallo fan or are in search of something “new” and different, you could do no better than to pick up this highly recommended (and selling out fast) set from Arrow Video.

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Luigi Bastardo

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