• Death Smiles On A Murderer

    Released by: Arrow Video
    Released on: May 22nd 2018.
    Director: Joe D’Amato
    Cast: Ewa Aulin, Klaus Kinski, Luciano Rossi, Giacomo Rossi Stuart
    Year: 1973
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    The Movie:

    Death Smiles On A Murderer is one of the notorious Joe D'Amato's earliest directorial efforts. In this period film, Klaus Kinski plays Dr. Sturge. He’s, a quirky scientist with a rather strange affection for an amnesiac named Greta (Ewa Aulin). Struges is obsessed with bringing the dead back to life, an unlikely task at which he soon proves successful... sort of. Greta is taken care of by a kindly couple (Sergio Doria and Angela Bo) but her estranged hunchback brother, Franz (Luciano Rossi), is running around making things difficult for people. Don't forget the lesbian scene, a couple of strange murders and a cop who wants to figure out what exactly is going on here. It's all very strange and fairly confusing...

    Death Smiles On A Murderer is honestly a bit of a mess. The plot jumps around and doesn't make a whole lot of sense (D'Amato co-wrote it with Claudio Bernabei) and despite the fancy locations and 'old-timey' costumes, the period filmmaking fails to convince. On top of that, the gore effects, for which D'Amato shows a knack, are over done here. There are plenty of prolonged shots and overacting, all of which ensures that their intended impact is not so much diminished as it is completely wasted. On the surface, Death Smiles On A Murderer really doesn't have a whole lot going for it at all.

    That said, there is some really nice atmosphere here and the film is very well shot. D'Amato, who got his start as a cinematographer, does an excellent job behind the camera on this film and everything is very nicely framed and composed. This goes a long way to making the film look a lot better than it really is. Berto Pisano's excellent score also helps the picture a fair bit. It doesn't necessarily fit with the time in which the picture is set but it does add atmosphere and mood – full points for the look of the film and the soundtrack.

    The cast is interesting here as well. Kinski always brought a heavy screen presence to every film he appeared in, from his now legendary collaborations with Werner Herzog to his generally cheap and quickly made work in the Italian exploitation industry. He appeared in a few Spaghetti Westerns like The Fighting Fists Of Shanghai Joe and Shoot The Living And Pray For The Dead as well as war movies like Heroes In Hell and cop films like The Bloody Hands Of The Law prior to this picture, so he was no stranger to the Italian film industry of the time. He's very well cast as the mad doctor, and while he doesn't go as over the top as he would in other films, all he really has to do is look the part, which he does – the fact that he’s dubbed doesn’t really help, however. He might not look as interested in his work here as he does in some of his other roles, but a mediocre Kinski performance is still far more interesting than the work of many other actors. Unfortunately, Kinski isn't really in the film as much as the advertising would have us believe.

    The rest of the cast are fairly disposable, though Ewa Aulin certainly looks nice enough and has a certain dreamlike quality to her acting that fits in with the strange vibe that runs through the film. She’s got plenty of screen time here and D’Amato and his camera seem quite in love with her – for good reason – she never looks less than gorgeous. Luciano Rossi is also fun as the nutty hunchback.

    Ultimately, Death Smiles On A Murderer is an interesting movie, if not a very good one. It foreshadows themes that D'Amato would further explore later in his career and it drips with atmosphere. Had a little more care been put into the story it would probably be better regarded than it is, but as it stands, it's worth seeing for those with an affinity for giallos and gothic pictures even if it isn’t a top-tier entry in the cycle or one of D’Amato’s best pictures.


    Death Smiles On A Murderer arrives on Blu-ray on a 50GB disc (with the feature taking up over 27GBs of space) framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition from a transfer taken from a ‘new 2k scan from the original camera negative’ and it looks excellent. The image is clean and it sports nice color reproduction. There’s good depth here and solid black levels too. There’s very little print damage to note, but the film’s natural grain structure is presented front and center, as it should be. Detail surpasses past DVD editions by a pretty wide margin and texture is quite strong throughout. Skin tones look nice and natural, never too waxy or pink, and the disc appears free of compression artifacts or edge enhancement.

    LPCM Mono options are provided in English and Italian with English language subtitles provided for each track. No issues here – both tracks sound just fine. There isn’t a lot of range here, but for older (and dubbed) single channel mono tracks it’s hard to find much to gripe about. Dialogue remains clean, clear and easily discernable and the score has pretty solid depth to it.

    The extras for this release kick off with an all new audio commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas. He gives us a quick introduction to D’Amato’s career (though there’s a weird edit around the ninety-second mark where gets cut off), before then providing a mix of scene specific insight and trivia about the picture and those who made it. He notes the strange sexuality of the film, makes some observations about the film’s excellent score and its CD release, the contributions of the cast, who did dubbed the performers in the English version and of course, the involvement of Klaus Kinski, which Lucas describes as ‘gratuitous.’ He also talks up the editing and the cinematography, the locations employed in the picture, the allure of Ms. Ewa Aulin, the portrayal of sexuality in the film, references to Poe, the picture’s dealings with guilt and quite a bit more. Like most of Lucas’ commentary tracks, it’s meticulously researched and very informative.

    From there, we get the first of a few featurettes with D’Amato Smiles on Death, which is an archival interview with the late director. Shot in 1999 and running just under six-minutes, it features the director talking specifically about making Death Smiles On A Murderer, working with Kinski and Aulin, the importance of ‘making a movie under my own name’ and the cinematography and imagery in the film.

    Up next is All About Ewa, a newly shot forty-three minute interview with the actress that covers not just her work here but her career in general. She discusses the early days of her career as a child model, auditioning for (but not getting) the part of Pippi Longstocking, and her burgeoning interest in cinema which led to her eventually getting into acting. She talks about her early roles and some of the people that she worked with in those days, her work in French cinema, shifting to Italian films and almost getting into a fight with a hairdresser! She also covers working in different genres, what was ‘interesting’ about working in Italy, different directors that she collaborated with and then, of course, her work on Death Smiles On A Murderer and working with both D’Amato and Kinski.

    Arrow also includes Smiling On The Taboo: Sex, Death And Transgression In The horror films Of Joe D Amato, which is a new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger that clocks in at twenty-two minutes. Here Ms. Ellinger talks up D’Amato’s various credits and accomplishments before then getting into the specifics of the feature. She talks about his penchant for mixing horror and erotica, why he directed films under fake names while working as a cinematographer, the different genres that he dabbled in – particularly giallos – and how this particular feature cobbles together plenty of aspects from different horror movie sub-genres. She notes the literary influences in the picture, the Freudian themes prominent in certain Italian pictures, how his work compares to that of Jess Franco, how cannibalism tends to show up in his work more frequently than that of most other directors and how it all ties in to the director’s obsessions with sex and death and his uncanny ability to ‘shock and entertain.’

    Rounding out the extras on the disc are some original trailers for the feature, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection. It’s also worth mentioning that the main menu of the disc allows you the choice of watching the feature with either Italian or English language titles and audio.

    This release also comes with some genuinely cool reversible sleeve art and an insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and for the Blu-ray release as well as essays on the picture courtesy of critic Stephen Thrower and historian Roberto Curti. Note that the booklet is limited to the first pressing of the disc only.

    The Final Word:

    Death Smiles On A Murderer isn’t the best giallo ever made but if nothing else, it’s beautifully shot and features a great score alongside fine work from Kinski and Aulin, which makes it pretty easy to forgive its shortcomings. Arrow’s Blu-ray release is excellent, presenting the film in great shape and with a load of informative and interesting supplements documenting its history and that of those who made it.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 3 Comments
    1. John Bernhard's Avatar
      John Bernhard -
      Surprised you are so dismissive of this film, I think it's D'Amato's best work.
      Looks like an outstanding transfer and terrific package.

      Plot may be a bit hazy on a first viewing, but the entire film hangs together save that final ( one too many ) twist before the end credits.

      More from TL
    1. Gary Banks's Avatar
      Gary Banks -
      I love this movie and will be picking it up as soon as I can. It makes about as much sense as a football bat, but fuck it, I gotta get this.
    1. Lalala76's Avatar
      Lalala76 -
      I actually liked this quite a bit too. I should say once it get in its stride. I'm still a bit confused. I had to read wiki after I watched it, to piece it all together. I still didn't get the very last scene though.