DEATH Winks At Weirdness And SMILES ON A MURDERER… Joe D’Amato’s Gory Gothic Folly Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Arrow. 15.

Life certainly smiled on Joe D’Amato (b. 15.12.36), a man who spent most of it consummating his love for Cinema, cranking out literally hundreds of movies in various genres and of varying merit, under scores of pseudonyms, travelling the world and disregarding the strictures of censors, taste makers and film snobs alike, doing just as he pleased, before checking out under what were apparently “A1” circumstances on 23.01.99. “He wanted to shock and entertain and he spent a life time doing just that”, as Kat Ellinger has it in a 22 minute video essay that appears among the supplementary materials on this must-have Arrow release.

Sure, he died young(ish)… if he’d continued another for twenty (or even ten) years, D’Amato would have racked up a tally of credits that must surely have stood as an insurmountable world record, making even the indefatigable Jesus Franco (the director with whom he is most frequently compared) look like a feckless slacker. Joe packed more into his 62 years than most of us could manage in several incarnations and loved every minute of it. As I discovered when I was privileged to breakfast with him in October 1995, he was a larger than life, joyous and thoroughly charming bloke. It’s a cliché, which I’m as guilty as anyone else of overusing, but the world really is a significantly duller place without Joe D’Amato.

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Although he’d already shot several films for other directors (notably Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done To Solange? in 1972) under his given name of Arisitide Massaccesi and directed or co-directed a bunch of spaghetti westerns and Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) anonymously, plus More Sexy Canterbury Tales (his directorial debut in ’72) as “Romano Gastaldi” and Diary Of A Roman Virgin (1973) under the soon-to-be-legendary D’Amato brand, it was not until the same yea’s La Morte Ha Sorriso All’Assassino, the film under consideration here, that our man (previously keen not to queer his DP pitch) signed off a film he’d directed under the name by which his Mama knew him.

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Proudly announcing his arrival as a for real director, artful Aristide packs Death Smiles On A Murderer with mannered visual tricks, deploying fish eye lenses, slow motion, enigmatic cutting, extreme close-ups and vertigo-inducing repetitious zooms… it’s as though he’s trying to remind us that he once served as Godard’s assistant on Le Mépris (1963), though the results bear more comparison with the works of the aforementioned Senor Franco, a comparison underlined by the presence of Klaus Kinski (fresh from Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath Of God), improvising manfully with flasks and bunsen burners while D’Amato furiously attempts to figures out how to fit him into the narrative before time runs out and Kinski’s off to whore himself in some other atrocity…

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… did I say “narrative“? Well frankly, precious little of that emerges from this succession of odd directorial flourishes. Tim Lucas opines on his commentary track that DSOAM is more of a poem than a narrative. It’s worth noting that Mario Bava made his most baffling picture and one of Lucas’s favourites, Lisa In The Devil, in the same year… there was definitely something in the air – or the drinking water – in Rome during 1973. Lucas makes a good fist of trying to explain what’s going on but is often reduced to describing things that you’ve just seen happen. Various people on IMDB have attempted to come up with a synopsis for DSOAM, if you check out some of these attempts it might spare you the effort of watching it ten times over before you get some kind of inkling. One finds oneself sympathising with Attilio Dotessio’s Inspector Dannick when he confesses: “I begin to doubt that I’ll ever solve this mystery… it just doesn’t add up!”

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For what it’s worth, here’s what I managed to figure out. In some ill-defined “period” setting, Franz von Holstein (perennial Italian screen lowlife Luciano Rossi) rapes his sister Greta (the bum-chinned Ewa Aulin from Candy) which she regards, rather worryingly, as the commencement of a love affair. She subsequently strays, however, from the fraternal bed and into the arms of local toff Dr von Ravensbrück (perennial Italian screen smoothie Giacomo Rossi Stuart). Blaming the von Ravensbrücks for his sister / lover’s subsequent demise, Franz re-animates her with the aid of an Ancient Incan incantation (as you do) and sends her back to the Ravensbrücks’ country pile to seduce various members of the family before revealing her true, rotting corpse’s face (cueing a grand mal-inducing flurry of zoom shots) and killing them.

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Kinski’s Dr Sturges figures out what is going on (by inserting a needle into the unflinching eye of Greta) and subsequently manages to reanimate a corpse of his own with the aid of that incantation, only to be bumped off by unknown hands. Murderous mission accomplished, Greta returns to Franz but their loving reunion doesn’t go to plan – Greta throws a cat into his face, initiating a seemingly endless scene in which the moggy rends his flesh and gouges his eyes out, a scene described by Lucas as “beyond taste and terror”…

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… a description which might just as well serve for the whole picture. So what’s it all about, Aristide? When I interviewed the director he told me that he “was trying to evoke a certain atmosphere in that film” rather than getting hung up on narrative coherence, also that the casting of Klaus Kinski was instrumental in achieving his desired effect.“For sure he was crazy and yes, not very normal, but he was very professional and would do exactly what you wanted him to do, so to work with him was in fact very nice. We had a good feeling when we worked, it was fantastic for me, though I know some people had a problem with him… because he was crazy!” Indeed… and a succession of post-mortem revelations continue to suggest that this craziness was a) genuine and b) sometimes manifested itself in repulsive ways.

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D’Amato’s success in achieving that “certain atmosphere” visually, complimented by Berto Pisano’s score (enthralling in its own sub-Morricone kind of way) effortlessly anticipates the subsequent delirium of D’Amato’s  Beyond The Darkness… in other words, you need this one in your collection, dear reader.

Additional extras include interview material briefly excerpted from Roger Fratter’s documentary Joe D’Amato – Totally Uncut, in which JDA talks some more about working with Kinsky and expresses sadness on hearing that Luciano Rossi had become a street person, in and out of institutions (indeed, he was dead with in six years of D’Amato)… also a recently filmed, career-spanning interview with Ewa Aulin, who speaks fluent Italian and these days looks like a librarian or a headmistress.

The first pressing of this edition apparently includes new writing on the film by Stephen Thrower and Roberto Curti… not that we humble horror hacks ever get to see any of that stuff.

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