Death Smiles on a Murderer is notable for being one of the first films directed by Aristide Massaccesi, better known as Joe D'Amato. D'Amato started out as a cameraman for such great directors as Duccio Tessari, Franco Zeffirelli, and Fernando Di Leo before becoming a cinematographer for the likes of Alberto De Martino and Massimo Dallamano. In 1972, D'Amato finally ventured into directing his own features, though many of these were uncredited. That is until a year later when he directed this film, one of the few credited to his given name. After seeing several of his later films, Death Smiles on a Murder is quite a telling harbinger of things to come.
La morte ha sorriso all'assassino takes place at the turn of the 20th century and focuses on a woman named Greta (played by the mysteriously beautiful Ewa Aulin). As we see in the beginning of the film, Greta is dead and being mourned by her brother/lover Franz (the creepy Luciano Rossi). The story then continues a few years later with the now living, yet amnesiac Greta at the castle of Walter and Eva von Ravensbruck (Sergio Doria and Angela Bo). She arrives when her horse carriage is overturned and the driver is killed. The von Ravensbrucks insist Greta stays until her memory returns, though over time they both fall in love with her. Walter's father (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) later arrives, who himself once knew Greta and it is revealed that she may be some sort of undead being. Soon the inhabitants of the castle begin dying horrible deaths.
Death Smiles on a Murderer is a difficult film to categorize. I initially assumed from the title that it was a giallo, and though it has elements of that genre, I would not call it that. It is more of a supernatural, gothic horror film with scenes of extreme gore (a staple of D'Amato's) to complement the director's flare for elegant cinematography. Sort of like a Jess Franco film with less close ups and tasteless nudity (something D'Amato would delve into later). The violence is unexpected and staggering at times, with a shotgun to the face, a repeated knife slashing and a cat who rips out someone's eyeballs (see the original poster art) among the film's goriest scenes. I would be lying if I said the film wasn't confusing and some of the scenes overlong, but as a whole it is a fascinating mix of elements from D'Amato's later oeuvre. Oh and if you are wondering why I haven't mentioned Klaus Kinski at all, its because he is barely in the film. His part is somewhat important, but very small. Still, it's always nice to see him show up in anything.
Fun Facts -
-D'Amato directed or co-directed several films in 1973, including the Macaroni Combat film Heroes in Hell and the Horror film The Devil's Wedding Night,
-Klaus Kinski and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart appeared together the same year in Mario Caiano's Kung Fu Spaghetti Western "The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe" (Il mio nome è Shanghai Joe)
-Also in 1973, Klaus Kinski appeared with Luciano Rossi in Mario Gariazzo's Polizia film "The Bloody Hands of the Law" (La mano spietata della legge).
Arrow Video recently released Death Smiles on a Murderer on Blu Ray and it is a must have. Features include:
- Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Original Italian and English soundtrack
- 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 trailer
- Stills and collections gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx