Somewhere between a giallo and a supernatural thriller, 1973’s Death Smiles on a Murderer is a different type of Italian horror movie. There is the prerequisite sex and gore, but there are also deeper themes that are not usually found in similar movies of the era. While it has its faults, the movie is worth watching.
Death Smiles on a Murderer is a period piece about a young woman named Greta who is constantly taken advantage of by the men in her life. After a near fatal accident, Greta is taken into the opulent home of Walter and Eva von Ravensbrück. Unfortunately, her arrival causes problems for everyone, including herself.
The production of Death Smiles on a Murderer is top notch and the Arrow Video release looks stunning. The film is filled with atmosphere, due in no small part to beautiful costumes and set pieces. The movie takes place at the start of the 20th century and everything captures the essence of the period. The movie does not just rely on visual cues as seemingly innocuous moments are indicative of the time. Italian horror movies are known for their excellent use of color; director Joe D’Amato instead decides to use historical accuracy and succeeds in setting the mood for the movie.
D’Amato’s camera work is also great. Shots are framed beautifully, allowing the audience to see the full scope of the movie’s beauty. Even the typical mysterious killer point of view shots are done in a way that showcase how the movie looks. D’Amato does occasionally do more than what is needed. There are some rapid cutscenes that are more headache inducing than fear inspiring, but overall it is a good job of directing.
The story in Death Smiles on a Murderer — whether intentional or not — is extremely progressive. Greta is abused by men her entire life which eventually sets her on a violent path of revenge. Where the movie differs is Greta’s motivations are not misplaced. The wrongs committed against her are not imagined or exaggerated; Greta has been mistreated and it is hard for the audience not to root for her.
The story here may be ahead of its time, but it is also all over the place. Quite simply, the movie has too much going on and becomes incoherent. Even when the audience pays close attention, it’s hard to keep up with plot. The movie deals with incest, the supernatural, pays homage to Edgar Allan Poe, and is a revenge story all in less than an hour and a half. Making matters worse, the movie will follow one plot thread before suddenly switching direction and completely dropping the original idea. It’s hard to get invested when the writers do not seem to know what they want.
Death Smiles at a Murderer is unique in the pantheon of Italian horror movies. It’s not as thrilling as a typical giallo movie, yet has as much sex appeal and gore as anything done by Mario Bava. The plot would be topical in 2018, but at times borders on nonsensical making an otherwise fine movie difficult to watch.
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