Being a fan of european exploitation films I’ve always had an admiration for trash auteur Joe D’Amato. Love him or hate him, Joe has an amazing way of painting the world as a disgusting depraved universe where everybody is a twisted sociopath. D’Amato’ s work includes the more important films in the Emanuelle series, the 1979 homage to nechrophilacs Beyond the Darkness (aka Buio Omega) and the featus eating cannibal sleaze fest Anthropophagous (1980, aka The Grim Reaper). When I recently came across an ad saying one of D’Amato’s first films Death Smiled at a Murderer (1973) was being reissued, I was completely ecstatic. Previously only available on import and bootleg releases, it is an important part of D’Amato’s cannon, as it his first try at making a suspense/horror film; previously D’Amato had directed westerns and sexploitation films.
The plot in Death Smiles At a Murderer revolves around a beautful woman named Greta (played by Death Laid An Egg star Ewa Aulin) who mysteriously appears at a mansion after her carriage crashes and the driver is impaled. She is then taken in by a couple that live at the mansion, and the two become strangely attracted to her. All the while, a doctor (played by Klaus Kinski) is developing a secret formula that brings the dead back to life. Soon love triangles, zombies and incest are are thrown in to the ever evolving non linear plot.
Although not a true Giallo, Death Smiles certainly has the feel of one, as the story is disjointed and hard to follow and has lots of the Giallo trademark; plenty of closeups on eyeballs. One could draw visual similarities in this film to his camera work on the 1972 giallo What Have You Done To Solange, as the film has a dreamlike atmosphere that feels both glamorously beautiful and cold and bleak. The movie never gets as sleazy as his later films, although there are a few gory scenes including one where Kinski sticks a needle through Greta’s eye (a la Fulci) and generous amounts of Ewa Aulin nude scenes. I would put this movie next to the best work in his catlalog, next to Beyond the Darkness and Emanuelle In America. It also sadly shows what D’Amato’s potential could have been if he hadn’t been driven so much by money to just direct pornos or be the person responsible for one of the best worst movies ever, Troll 2 (1990).
The recently released Legend House DVD release is a double feature also including the German gothic horror The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967, aka Castle of the Walking Dead, Blood of the Virgins). It stars Christopher Lee as an executed Count who comes back to life to kill the offspring of the people who put him to death by using medieval torture devices on the victims. The film is similar to Mario Bava’s Black Sunday era in direction and cinematography, and the plot recalls the campy Italian movie Bloody Pit of Horror (1965).
The transfers both of the movies are visually above average, but the sound can be pretty bad at times including loud hiss and pops. The DVD includes a fun trailer reel of some grade Z movies and a featurette of horror archivist Johnny Legend outside the famous New Beverly Cinema in LA. It also has commentary for both films by two dry reviewers who do their talk in some guy’s living room while an nearby ice cream truck drowns them out with its incredibly loud music. That alone is worth the Netflix rental.