This early directorial outing from Joe D'Amato / Aristide Massaccesi succeeds in terms of imagery and atmosphere, his long apprenticeship as a cinematographer paying dividends, but nevertheless fails to establish the overall consistency of tone it would need to qualify as a minor masterpiece.
At its best Death Smiled at Murder achieves a hallucinatory ambience reminiscent of Mario Bava or Antonio Margheriti. At its worst it is as crude and banal as could be expected from a film-maker who later went on to specialise in sex / horror hybrids and outright porn.
This said, neither the sex nor the gore scenes in Death Smiled at Murder, are as extreme as anything Massaccesi would dish up five or ten years down the line, even if the both – a random pseudo-lesbian encounter; a shotgunning and a multiple slashing to the face etc. – clearly suggest where he was heading.
Regardless, at least it begins as it means to go on, with a confusingly structured opening montage of incidents whose significance will only become (partially) apparent as the main story unfolds.
A hunchbacked figure (the ever-creepy Luciano Rossi) mourns the loss of his sister and “only love” and promises to restore her to life. Clearly, however, she is / was not comfortable with his incestuous attentions, as we then see them fighting, followed by her announcing her desire to be free.
It seems that at some point she did escape, for next we see the young woman running through the woods, her deformed pursuer stopping in his tracks as he sees his beloved in the embrace of another man (Giaocomo Rossi Stuart) whom she obviously knows.
With these enigmas planted, we are introduced to the main characters and story.
Eva and Walter von Ravensbrück (Angela Bo and Sergio Doria) are relaxing in the grounds of their mansion when a coach comes racing through the grounds and spectacularly crashes. Rushing to investigate, they find the coachman dead, impaled on a shaft of wood, and the only passenger – the beautiful young woman who we saw in the opening montage – physically unharmed but unable to remember who she is or where she came from.
Dr Sturges (Klaus Kinski) is called in to make a diagnosis. During the examination he notices a pendant around the girl's neck, with the name Greta, the year 1906 – it is now 1909 – and some strange engravings on the reverse. By a truly bizarre coincidence, Sturges immediately recognises these as an Incan formula for resurrecting the dead; the goal which he has been questing for all these years.
Meanwhile the servant Gertrude observes – Massaccessi loads the film with giallo-style POV shots, sometimes identifying the voyeur, sometimes not – being distressed enough by something she sees to first experience some remarkably vivid nightmares / flashbacks and then announce that she is leaving the household.
Though puzzled by Gertude's sudden decision, coming as it does after three years loyal service, no one seems to particularly mind. Or at least openly, for Gertrude is then mercilessly despatched by the double-barrelled shotgun of an unseen killer despite her pleas that she “never said anything to anyone”
Some time later Dr Sturges and his deaf-mute servant (one can't help thinking it's never a good idea to be a deaf-mute in a horror film) succeed in resurrecting a corpse only to be summarily dispatched along with their freshly revived subject by an unidentified killer.
Time passes and Greta, now more or less recovered, is ready to leave. The Ravensbrück's have taken a liking to her and won't hear of it, encouraging her to stay on and introducing her to their circle at a ball.
Then each, enchanted by Greta's beauty, embarks on a clandestine affair. Apparently somewhat confused by her lesbian feelings, Eva first half-drowns Greta in her bath, then drops her robe and kisses Greta.
Eva's sadism does not augur well for the future and, after discovering Greta in her husband's arms, she decides that if she cannot have Greta all to herself then no one can have her, walling the girl up alive in an unused cellar.
Worried by Greta's disappearance, Walter contacts the police. They find nothing and, with three weeks having passed, the Von Ravensbrücks are getting used to life without Greta once more.
Then, at a masked ball, the narrative takes another Poe-like twist, with Greta appearing before a terrified Eva…
Even it's not quite the case that “None of this makes any sense,” as the Inspector says by way of summary after another 40 minute of mayhem, the inexplicable Carmilla-style coach incident; the unclear story function of servants Gertrude and Simeon (amusingly pronounced as something closer to 'Simian' to my ears), and the sub-plot with Dr Sturges are enough to make one wonder what Massaccessi and his co-scriptwriters were smoking and, indeed, if the film might be better whilst under the influence.
Away from the awkward tone, wayward narrative and occasional moment of cheapness, as when the hunting dogs sniff at the camera in a shot that should have been retaken, the film benefits from a reasonable period feel, the cheap yet credible production design and costuming being hampered only by some rather 70s hairstyles. Having said this, given D'Amato's later specialisation in historical and relatively big-budget porn films, there is perhaps again a line of descent that can be detected here as well.
Berto Pisano's haunting score, with its use of female vocal, mournful flute and muted trumpet lines and sparse piano and percussion, is another asset, even if it again sounds more appropriate to a contemporary giallo than a period / Gothic one. (Contrariwise, one could see the film working very well with Bruno Nicolai's Your Vice is a Locked Room... score, especially given that film's equally free-form approach to Poe.)
The performances are variable. Ewa Aulin excels as the seductive angel of death / succubus character, at first coming across all vulnerable and innocent, then turning playful, then nasty. Angela Bo is good as well, her scenes with Aulin having a genuine erotic charge and making one regret that she did not do more films. Klaus Kinski, top-billed with Aulin, is underused in what really amounts to little more than a cameo, but at least delivers some of those trademark intense, vein-bulging gazes. Rossi-Stuart and the other male performers are less interesting, though this does also provide a useful counterbalance for Aulin to work her seductive / destructive wiles and as such might, if one is being charitable, be ascribed to design.