Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Friday, January 18, 2013

La morte ha sorriso all'assassino (1973)

... aka: Death Smiled at Murder
... aka: Death Smiles on a Murderer
... aka: Morte sorride all'assassino, La
... aka: Sette strani cadaveri
... aka: Seven Strange Corpses

Directed by:
Aristede Massaccesi (Joe D'Amato)

Joe D'Amato is usually linked to two things: Italian gore-fests like BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979) and THE GRIM REAPER (1980) or sexed-up junk like his long running Black Emanuelle series starring Laura Gemser, not to mention over a hundred (often-well-produced) hardcore porn films. But there was a time before all that when D'Amato was mingling around with more 'respectable' mainstream filmmakers. D'Amato had shot the well-regarded giallo WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1971) and also helmed this ghost / zombie tale, made back when he was still using his real name, Aristede Massaccesi. Most of D'Amato's later efforts are notable for how sleazy and grimy they looked and felt, but this one is nicely, sumptuously photographed (by D'Amato himself), has an elegant score from Berto Pisano and a few actors who certainly wouldn't be caught dead in one of the director's later films. It's also extremely bizarre, confusing and frequently downright senseless. There's some nudity and outbursts of gory violence sprinkled throughout, but neither is as excessive as you'd expect given D'Amato's later work.

Innocent-looking, wide-eyed, blonde Swedish beauty Ewa Aulin (still riding high on her Candy fame) stars as Greta von Holstein. Greta's hunchback brother Franz (Luciano Rossi) is madly in love with his little sis and has even gone so far as to rape her. Greta plays along until she runs across Dr. Herbert von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), an older gentleman who sweeps her off her feet and eventually knocks her up. Unfortunately, she dies giving birth to their child. Three years pass and an out-of-control carriage crashes outside Herbert's castle home; impaling the coachman in the process and leaving an unconscious young woman inside the cab. Herbert's grown son Walter (Sergio Doria) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo) now live in the castle and bring the girl inside. Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski) is called in to evaluate her. She has amnesia and doesn't remember how she even got there. After noticing she's wearing a medallion around her neck with the name "Greta" and the year "1906" on one side, and a strange symbol on the other, the doctor proceeds to stick a pin through her eyeball (!) Greta doesn't even flinch or react.

Walter and Eva decide to let Greta live with them and both quickly fall in love with the troubled girl. Eva eventually becomes jealous, lures Greta down into some catacombs underneath their home, locks her inside a room and then bricks it up. She tells everyone that Greta has left but two weeks later she materializes yet again to even the score. Meanwhile, Dr. Sturges experiments with corpses in his lab. He concocts some green serum utilizing the formula - actually an ancient Incan spell - found on Greta's necklace, and uses it to resurrect a corpse. The doctor doesn't get very far in his endeavors, though. Someone sneaks in and kills both him and his assistant. That same person then starts stalking and killing off the Ravensbrück family (including Herbert - who shows up in town after a three-year absence to attend a funeral) as well as the nosy butler Simeon (Marco Mariani). An understandably confused inspector (Attilio Dottesio) pops in from time to time to investigate what's going on.

To say the events that transpire in this film are inadequately explained may be the understatement of the year. During an early scene, a maid at the Ravensbrück home keeps seeing visions of the hunchback brother's ghost in her bedroom, who grabs her and appears in her mirror. She attempts to leave and someone blasts off her face with a shotgun. This isn't so weird per se, but it is when it's the only scene featuring the brother's ghost. That whole idea is just dropped afterward. The zombie formula stuff also doesn't quite gel. It's revealed that Greta is revived with the elixir, but has somehow not only gained eternal youth, but has also gained supernatural powers. And I don't just mean being able to live through things that should kill her. I mean like throwing a bouquet of flowers at someone and having it turn into a vicious Siamese cat that claws someone's eyeballs out!

Strange and senseless as much of this is, it does have that really soft, dream-like, intoxicating early 70s Euro-horror feel to it. The whole thing looks pretty good, the acting isn't bad, there's some bizarrely frenetic editing, lots of zooms into eyeballs and some genuine surprises in here for more lenient viewers who don't mind wading through a muddled storyline to get to the rewards.


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