October 18, 2014

Movie Review: Death Smiles on a Murderer

In my research into cult, exploitation, and horror films of the past (well, not so much on purpose, but all that I happen to come across), I have found a few prolific directors whose work is a distinct learned taste. They are not directors you are going to love right away, but if you give them time you will find something to really grab onto. Good examples of this sort of director are Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, and the director of the movie in question here, Joe D'Amato. These guys all made a lot of movies, some are good, and some are really, really bad. The movie that stands accused is Death Smiles on a Murderer. Rather evocative title isn't it?

Death Smiles on a Murderer was directed by D'Amato under his given name, Aristide Massaccesi. He was also responsible for co-writing the story and the screenplay. It is a curious film that feels like a mash up of multiple other films. If this had come later in his prolific career, I would think that this may have been pieced together from a few ideas he had lying around, attempting to get all his stuff on film no matter how mismatched it may be. If this was a Hollywood production (which it clearly is not), I would have expected one of those lists of writers that is as long as your arm, and had probably been passed through a number of hands before even getting to that point. Still, it is not worthless, it is entertaining in its sheer oddness.

The movie kicks off when a horse drawn carriage crashes near a countryside villa, the coachman is found dead, impaled by one of the wheel axles. The lone passenger is a young blonde (Ewa Aulin), discovered unconscious. When she awakens, she has no memory of who she is or anything about her life. Based on a pendant around her neck, we assume her name is Greta, and before you know it, she is firmly entrenched as a guest of Walter and Eva von Ravensbruck (Sergio Diana and Angela Bo). This is where things get weird.

It is revealed that the doctor treating Greta, Dr. Sturge (Klaus Kinski), is of the mad scientist variety of doctor. He is working on the reanimation of dead bodies in his secret laboratory (you may let out an evil laugh here). However, his experiments are short lived and his reanimation tale is left behind (you'll see). Meanwhile, it is revealed that Walter is in love with Greta and is not shy about it. Greta is receptive. Eva then finds out, and then, after a weak attempt at a bathtub drowning, Eva reveals her love for Greta. Greta is receptive. Yes, it gets a little weird.

We get a bit of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," with Eva trying to have some revenge on Greta. Then Greta is revealed as some sort of monster and killing begins. The last act has Greta attempting to have some revenge on a character that doesn't even show up until this final act for actions that happened before the movie actually began.

Death Smiles on a Murderer is a mash up of different movies and different stories, all with a bit of an exploitation bend. It is not really bad, per se, but it is not exactly good either. Just as you begin to get a handle on what's going in, the rug is pulled out from under you and you are sent in a new direction. This happens repeatedly. Besides the rather schizophrenic nature of the plot, we do get an entertaining performance from Ewa Aulin, who seems to be having fun with the role and is game for whatever comes up The look she gives Eva after the tub drowning is priceless.

Not sure I would recommend this to a newcomer to D'Amato, but it is certainly worth taking a peek at. I am still not quite sure what the title refers to in this hodgepodge of a plot, but it certainly is eye catching. Now, I have not seen all that many of his movies, but if you are curious about other D'Amato flicks, I would recommend Buio Omega (aka Beyond the Darkness).


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