An archeological group led by troubled alcoholic Jason Porter (Alex Cord) discovers an Etruscan tomb, but are forced to retreat to shelter by a sudden storm after taking a few initial pictures of its interiors with a special camera mounted on a metal probe.
That night two young lovebirds are brutally murdered, bludgeoned to death with the probe by an unidentified figure who then arranges their bodies like the those in the fresoes within the new tomb, depicting as they do the slaying of two young Etruscans by the demon Tuchulka.
The police, led by Inspector Giuranna (Enzo Tarascio) have barely begun to investigate the crime when the killer strikes again.
This time one of the victims, dig member Igor (Carlo De Mejo), at least survives the assault; unfortunately he is also unable to provide any significant clues as to the identity of his girlfriend Giselle's slayer.
Nonetheless, three suspects quickly come to the forefront.
The first is Jason, prone to blackouts, unable to provide convincing alibis for what he was doing at the time of the murders, and with circumstantial evidence pointing against him. Wasn't he the last one seen with the probe before its disappearance? What happened during those hours he cannot account for?
The second is Nicos (John Marley), an autocratic, rage-prone composer who also happens to be Jason's rival for the affections of Myra (Samantha Eggar) – a complication that raises the possibility of each incriminating the other, or at least standing to benefit by their being exposed as the guilty party.
The “drunken archeologist,” the “paranoid conductor” and the woman who stands between them
The third is Nicos's choreographer associate Stephen (Horst Frank), with the possibility that he is not only homosexual but also homicidal if outbursts such as “I get the most ghastly notions, LIKE I WANT TO KILL SOMEBODY!” are anything to go by; perhaps not coincidentally he is preparing a routine for the Festival of the Two Worlds, a suspicious name if ever there was one. (Amongst his terpsichoreans one can note the presence of Carla Brait, whilst the ever-(un)reliable IMDB also indicates that Carla Mancini is in there somewhere.)
The “faggot choreographer”
All this assumes, of course, that the killer is in fact human – here noting the way in which the archeologists' breaching the tomb after over two millenia was followed by that sudden storm, when the weather is otherwise pretty much perfect throughout the rest of the narrative.
The demon and its eyes; are the frescoes in which it is seen killing a young couple the Etruscan equivalent of a slasher movie indicating the punishment for those who transgress sexually?
Directed and co-authored by Armando Crispino, this Italian-German-Yugoslavian co-production mines similar territory to his later, better known Autopsy in attempting to introduce supernatural horror trappings into an otherwise fairly conventional giallo murder mystery but likewise fails to follow through on the promise established by a strong opening act.
The first issue, I think, is that no-one within the diegesis really seems to believe a 2,500 year old Etruscan is alive and killing in the late 20th century; indeed, when the possibility is voiced by one character – “Surely an etruscan painter thousands of years ago couldn't have been inspired by a crime that took place this week” – the very ridiculousness of the statement is all too telling.
This wouldn't be so bad had the filmmakers not half-heartedly attempted to establish this possibility from the way in which they present the first killing. Though the subjective camera is used, shots of black gloves and trenchcoats are absent and replaced by cut-ins of the demon's eyes, apparently attempt to cast doubt on the killer's species. We are dragged back down to earth, however, by the choice of weapon and the heavy breathing that then accompanies the dragging of the bodies to their final resting places, as details that are human, all too human. (We need, that is, some shots of a hairy, inhuman arm of the type that comes crashing through the window in Suspiria, or of a figure in a krimi style monster mask, convincing or not.)
“He's smart that cop, a lot smarter than he looks. He's already found out where the shoes came from. But they stole two pairs. Why two pairs?”
Whilst the self-evidently human fragments in subsequent set pieces – a black gloved hand reaching out towards a tape recorder here, a bare foot there – do at least offer the possiblity that the filmmakers had intended to let the more astute viewer in on the game from the off, this comes at the price of making us then wonder why they bothered with the supernatural seeming manifestations at all, making them seem more like cheap shock effects. (Here we can also note, in comparison with the careful use of diegetic sound in some of the later sequences, the crude stingers on the soundtrack that accompany these demon's eye shots.)
Another awkward element is that Jason is the kind of protagonist with whom we cannot comfortably identify, with it telling that his voice-over is pretty much confined to the opening and closing minutes. It is less a matter of his alcholism and tendency towards violence than the way information is withheld from us, as a comparison with the Franco Nero character in The Fifth Cord makes clear: while equally prone to these negative character traits, he is also positioned as someone the viewer can trust, a good guy in a hostile world.
Here, by contrast, the lacunae in Jason's memory create unfillable gaps in our understanding, even after the diegesis has filled in some of the blanks via flashbacks. Again, this is not in itself necessarily a bad thing. It is more that sense of unfulfilled potential by way of a reluctance to follow through and do a Hatchet for the Honeymoon or Tenebrae in playing these identificatory games.
Perhaps more fundamental than these, however, is that those things on which the entire mystery ultimately proves to rest – including a classic primal scene that at grants a retrospective meaning to a recurring (red) shoe and foot fetish and the repeated use of Verdi's Requiem as leitmotif for the crime, an aural clue that Jason is poorly positioned to interpret – are awkwardly integrated, their significance hastily explained only in the finale in a way that denies us many of the the pleasures of “playing the detective”.
On the plus side, the performances and technical credits are good while writing also has a pleasing density to it, with numerous references to myths – Cinderella, Bluebeard, Parsifal by way of Wagner's opera – clearly intended to bolster the supernatural “Etruscan returns and kills again” reading. The Spoleto locations are also well used in this regard, with a small town, ghost town dynamic – other people like the dance troupe are certainly present, but seem to vanish when no longer required as a chorus – making the generic convention of having the killer be one of the characters presented to us in the psychodrama that bit more credible. For while giallo crimes are often bizarre in method and motive they must also be explicable: the horror of the truly random, inexplicable crime is not something they explore; the big issue here, as already indicated, is whether the dynamic of improbable and impossible works.
The original and the copy?
Some sources credit Bryan Edgar Wallace as the author of the story on which the film is based, a detail which would certainly make sense in the light of the CCC company's involvement and help explain the film's more outre touches, along with accounting for the presence of Frank, previously seen in Cat o' Nine Tails in another gay role. Cinematographer Erico Menczer and Tarascio were also among the cast and crew of the Argento film, itself a co-production with CCC.
Another inter-connection the inclusion of a somewhat gratuitous, if enjoyable, car chase, although the presence of some unwarranted stunt driving in Autopsy also suggests this may be something of a Crispino hallmark.
One of the film's more poetic touches recalls Fellini's Roma, meanwhile, as the remains of two Etruscans disintegrate before our very eyes as they are exposed to the environment after thousands of years of being hermetically sealed; those for whom such moments are less interesting would perhaps be better advised to seek out Andrea Bianchi's zombie entry Nights of Terror, which at least delivers on the prospect of undead Etruscans...
The Etruscan Kills Again was released on DVD by Eurovista, from where these screen grabs come; as can be seen the visuals is somewhat murky at times, with there also being some awkward jump cuts. The compositions also appear slightly wide / off, with the tops of characters' heads sometimes being chopped off.
Perhaps someone will re-master the film and release it along with Sergio Martino's The Scorpion with Two Tails for an Etruscan murder double-feature.