Monday, 27 November 2006

The Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set

The early 1970s were the boom time for the Italian thriller or giallo, the name coming from the yellow covers in which mystery and suspense novels were published. An important part of the giallo film phenomenon was the presence of a number of attractive female starlets such as Edwige Fenech, Barbara Bouchet and the star of these two Luciano Ercoli directed Italian-Spanish co-productions, his wife Nieves Navarro, appearing here under her Susan Scott pseudonym.

La Morte cammina con i tacchi alti / Death Walks on High Heels opens boldly, with a sequence that alerts the viewer to expect the unexpected: a one-eyed gunman on a train, the kind of figure who you believe to be an assassin, is himself murdered by a balaclava wearing, razor-wielding killer with distinctive blue eyes.

We soon learn that the victim was jewel thief Rochard. His ill-gotten gains remain missing. The police suspect his daughter Nicole, an exotic dancer, may know their whereabouts. But she professes ignorance.

Later, Nicole is threatened by the train murderer, who caresses her with a straight razor and warns her that the next time she had better tell him the location of the diamonds or he'll use the sharp side of his blade.

Finding bright blue contact lenses among her neer-do-well boyfriend/pimp Michel's accoutrements, Nicole believes he may be involves and thereby flees into the arms of Dr Robert Matthews, an Englishman who showed up at one of the strip clubs where she works shortly before and, wooing her with flowers, confessed to being wowed by her strip routine…

The pair leave Paris for London and thence to Matthews's cottage by the sea, empty but for a decidedly creepy looking groundsman with an artificial hand…

From here on in the plot gets complicated, with nothing quite what it seems, including the titular killer…

Coming across as a hybrid of Psycho, Rear Window and Il Diavolo a sette facce / The Devil Has Seven Faces – the two Hitchcock productions providing prolific genre screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi with themes of voyeurism and sexual deviancy and Osvaldo Civriani's giallo the missing diamonds McGuffin and narrative contortions – Death Walks in High Heels is a bit of a curate's egg of a production, with effective direction and a top-notch genre cast – besides Scott we have Frank Wolff (The Great Silence) and Simon Andreu (The Blood Spattered Bride), playing Matthews and Michel respectively, along with Claudie Lange, Luciano Rossi (The Stranger's Gundown) and George Rigaud (Knife of Ice) in supporting roles – outweighed by a marginally overlong and too-confusing narrative that pulls the rug out on the spectator rather too much to fully engage their attentions.

Less, then, an example of the giallo as art than as trash, the film's main selling points are undoubtedly Scott – one soon loses count of the number of different, but invariably revealing costumes (and wigs) she dons as Nicole – and some satisfyingly grisly murder scenes.

La Morte accarezza a mezzanotte / Death Walks at Midnight AKA Death Caresses at Midnight reunites more or less the same cast – Peter Martell/Pietro Martellanza (The Bogeyman and the French Murders) stepping into the Wolff type role, the American born actor having committed suicide barely weeks after the November 1971 Italian release of Death Walks in High Heels – with Ercoli once more working from an Ernesto Gastaldi penned-script.

This time Scott plays Valentina, a hot-tempered fashion model who is persuaded by her journalist boyfriend – again essayed by Andreu – to take an experimental drug for a story he is writing. Under its influence, she has a horrifying vision of a man smashing a woman's face in with a spiked glove, reminiscent of the one prominently featured in Mario Bava's seminal Blood and Black Lace.

It soon proves, however, to be no mere hallucination, with a woman having been murdered in the apartment opposite under near identical circumstances. Valentina's half-remembered memories thus plunge her into a nightmare world of deception and murder. Plus ca change

Again, what the film may lacks in seriousness it makes up for in trashy fun. Valentina's apartment showcases some especially groovy interior design, while composer Gianni Ferrio contributes nice themes and Mina some gorgeous vocalism.

The main thing to be said about the Death Walks at Midnight disc is that it is in the 2.35:1 ratio, with the earlier release from Mondo Macabro having been incorrectly framed at 1.85:1. While the earlier disc was watchable, nowhere near as bad as a scope film being panned and scanned to 1.33:1, the extra information previously “lost” is clearly welcome in a “see it again for the first time” way.

Much the same can be said of the difference between the audio presentations of the two discs: whereas the Mondo Macabro release was sourced from a French print and so lacked the Italian dub, the NoShame disc features it instead; both also, of course, including the English dub.

The extras on the disc comprise a small poster and stills gallery and – rather more impressive – a 105 minute TV version of the film. While the quality is poor, being panned and scanned and sourced from a VHS copy, it's nice to have even if not the sort of thing you're likely to revisit often beyond the Video Watchdog nerd factor.

Also presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with a choice of English and Italian 2.0 audio tracks, there's not much to say about the Death Walks on High Heels except that it's again a pretty much top-notch transfer, clean, bright and sharp as a maniac's straight razor. (Apologies; I just had to work that one in.)

The extras, meanwhile, comprise another small gallery and the original – somewhat psychedelic – English and Italian trailers for the film, which are otherwise identical bar their languages.

The set also includes miniature reproductions of the films' lobby cards and a booklet containing liner notes; biographies of Navarro, Rossi and Wolff by Chris D – author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema – illustrations, poster reproductions and a track listing for the Cipriani CD.

One contestable point within the liner notes is the author's assertion that Romolo Guerreri's 1968 film Sweet Body of Deborah “inadvertently opened the floodgates,” for the giallo. While the years 1968 and 1969 saw a rising number of productions in a similarly vein, such as Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo and Così dolce… così perversa and Lucio Fulci's One on Top of the Other most other commentators would probably have suggested that the key film here was Dario Argento's 1969 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, as signalled by the rash of like-sounding titles that quickly followed in its wake like Fulci's Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Sergio Martino's The Case of the Scorpion's Tail.

While dedicated followers of Italian pop cinema will likely have many of the 18 tracks featured on The Sound of Love and Death: The Very Best of Stelvio Cipriani, the CD provides a good demonstration of the composer's versatility. Curiously it does not include anything from Death Walks on High Heels, the closest thing to a giallo among the films featured being two tracks from Massimo Dallamano's police / giallo hybrid La polizia chiede aiuto / What Have They Done to Your Daughters, the title piece and a driving chase score. with the mix otherwise one of pieces from dramas, cop actioners and horror. Fans of the trashier side of Cipriani's work may be disappointed by the lack of anything from his Joe D'Amato porno-horrors, but should find the TV studio disco track from Lenzi's Incubo sulla citta' contaminata / Nightmare City a decent enough substitute.

All told, a must-buy for Euro cultists.

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