Release Date(s)1973 (May 22, 2018)
Studio(s)Dany Film/Florida Cinematografica/AVCO Embassy Television (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
Death Smiles on a Murderer (aka La morte ha sorriso all’assassino) is a complicated film. With one foot in expressionistic storytelling and the other in straight narrative (however broken it may be), the two don’t necessarily mix all that well. It’s an interesting film in that you spend much of your viewing time trying to make heads or tails of the plot with one curve ball after another being thrown at you, but it takes some time to try and piece together, even requiring multiple watches to do so.
The story concerns a beautiful young woman who comes calling on a married couple, disrupting their marriage with obvious temptation. She also seems to possess a supernatural power, and it’s going to take more than death to get rid of her. Investigating the matter is a police inspector who makes his way through the countryside, peeling back more layers about her past, her bizarre relationship with her mysterious brother, and the multiple dead bodies in her wake.
Joe D’Amato (Aristide Massaccesi) directed the film in 1973 outside of his normal horror/pornographic wheelhouse, casting Swedish actress Ewa Aulin, as well as a small role inhabited by Klaus Kinski, who was clearly added for box office value as his scenes ultimately don’t have much bearing on the plot. Nothing about the film is as it seems. It’s a kaleidoscope of images and ideas that don’t exactly meld, but are fascinating nonetheless. It also features one of the oddest and out of left field endings of recent memory.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray presentation of Death Smiles on a Murderer is sourced from a new 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative, offering both the Italian and English versions of the film. It’s a beautiful, clean, organic transfer with mostly solid grain and high levels of fine detail, including much of the costumes and architecture seen throughout. The color palette is often lush, particularly during outdoor scenes, while skin tones waver slightly between warm and natural. Deep black levels are also on display with excellent brightness and contrast as well. It’s also a stable presentation with next to no obvious damage leftover, aside from a couple of instances of debris in the gate along the edge of the frame. The audio is presented with English and Italian mono LPCM tracks with optional English subtitles. There isn’t an enormous difference between the two tracks as they offer similarly narrow presentations, but the film’s score comes through with more fidelity than anything else. Sync is a little loose on both tracks, but dialogue is clean and discernible. No major leftover instances of hiss or crackle are present either.
Extras include an audio commentary by Italian film historian and author Tim Lucas (always a welcome addition to any extras package); D’Amato Smiles on Death, a 6-minute archival interview with the director from 1999; All About Ewa, a new 43-minute interview with actress Ewa Aulin; Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death and Transgression in the Horror Films of Joe D’Amato, an excellent new 22-minute video essay by film critic Kat Ellinger who explores the work of the director; the original English and Italian theatrical trailers; a stills and collections gallery with 44 images in all; and last but not least, a 44-page insert booklet containing the essays “The Thousand and One Days of Aristide” by Stephen Thrower and “The Angel Ends Where the Devil Begins: Shooting Death Smiles on a Murderer” by Roberto Curti, as well as an interview with screenwriter and assistant director Romano Scandariato by Manlio Gomarasca and restoration details.
What could have been a tawdry piece of European horror/thriller cinema is instead fighting hard to be seen as a work of art. Death Smiles on a Murderer may not be on most genre fans’ radars, but it’s certainly one of the more interesting films that its director ever made. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of it is certainly a major step up above all others before it, offering an excellent A/V presentation and quality bonus materials.
- Tim Salmons