Beyond the Darkness (1979) was my first Joe D’Amato experience and one of my earlier Italian horror revelations, and it quickly ramped up my respect for D’Amato, who, for me, at the time was like the ‘other guy’ who seemed like he was going to be my new grimier gore-master alternative to Fulci and Argento.
D’Amato's Anthropophagus (1980), despite its notoriety, didn’t quite measure up to the expectations I had based on what I experienced from Beyond the Darkness. Incidentally, I did end up ultimately enjoying D’Amato’s line of odd, softcore (sometimes hardcore) Emanuelle films, most of which starred the exotic and goddess-like Laura Gemser. Somewhere along the way, I got ahold of D’Amato’s poetic and beautifully gothic Death Smiles on a Murderer / La morte ha sorriso all'assassino, his first horror film as sole director. I didn’t quite connect with it on the first run, but I’ve really come to appreciate it today.
D’Amato thought highly enough of Death Smiles to direct it under his real name Aristide Massaccesi, a title he would always use for credit as a cinematographer, which was his primary occupation, and he did not want to jeopardize it by attaching his real name to the directorial credit of any lousy movies. Curiously, Death Smiles would be the last time he would direct a film without using a pseudonym.
Death Smiles is the only traditional gothic horror from D’Amato that I know of, and, despite being the usual low budget genre picture, it benefits greatly from high quality cinematography (helmed by D’Amato), terrific locations, and a perfect soundtrack by the great and underappreciated Berto Pisano (Burial Ground, Interrabang), all of which are integrated together to create one of the best looking and sounding gothic horror era pieces that’s the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
The film contains seeds to certain traits that would characterize D’Amato’s filmography to come, such as nudity, sapphic love scenes, cheap gore, and voyeurism, elements that are restrained enough in this case to not really undermine the story, which contains an agreeable meld of classic literary influences from the likes of Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, and even HP Lovecraft.
When looking over the assortment of characters in the film, it ends up being a little difficult to discern who the protagonist might be, or even if there’s meant to be one. Nominally it might be Walter (Sergio Doria), but I believe the protagonist is actually the bewitching Greta von Holstein (Ewa Aulin). It’s established in the film’s prologue that she has died, met with some cruel fate unbeknownst to viewers at this point. Her incestuous, hunchback brother, Franz (Luciano Rossi), is grieving over her, in some sort of dark, candle-lit shrine, blaming others as well as himself for her death, foreshadowing the film’s theme of cosmic justice. A series of flashback vignettes (one superbly dreamlike) explores their disturbing past sexual relationship, and introduces a much older man (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) who came between them, leaving it unexplained as to how she died, for now.
Following the prologue, the story transitions to a different time, one in which viewers would naturally believe to be in the past, when Greta was alive, but all I’ll say is the movie is quite clever in this aspect. If you didn’t understand how it all comes together in the end, watch it again. The second watch is beneficial because you’ll know a lot more, since the movie, being of the mystery genre, purposefully leaves you in the dark for the most part, and it’s fun to pick up on things the second time around. Although the number of inaccurate synopses I've come across is probably testament to its confusion.
The moment when a fast moving double horse carriage crashes in front of the von Ravensbruck mansion, and reveals a mysterious and bewitching girl, Greta, of weak health and lost memory, who the family takes in, is quite reminiscent of a similar moment in Le Fanu’s Carmilla. The doctor that tends to the bedridden Greta is played by Klaus Kinski, who naturally brings something very “Klaus Kinski’ to the role. The film production only had Klaus for a limited time, and it shows, because he’s taken out of the movie, murdered off, just as things start getting real interesting with his character, Dr. Sturges.
The movie alludes to the fact that Dr. Sturges secretly realizes Greta is undead and that an Incan formula engraved on her medallion is the key to reanimating the dead, which creates a side branch in the narrative to a slightly different mad scientist direction for a short time, with Kinski quietly and frantically working in his lab with an obsessive zeal, as it’s kind of implied that he had spent his entire career trying to discover the secret to raising the dead and now finally has the solution thanks to the key data he observed on Greta’s medallion. Watching Kinski work with his glassware and writing esoteric math formulae on the blackboard is terrific, and even the sign language he uses to communicate with his mute assistant is nuanced by Kinski in a way that makes it oddly stand out. Dr. Sturges succeeds in raising a fresh human cadaver back to life in a memorable shot that I thought had Lovecraft’s Herbert West -- Reanimator written all over it.
The mad scientist plot-branch ends with Dr. Sturges' death from the classic off-screen killer’s hands; it’s interesting to think where the movie might’ve gone with the re-animator plot had the production been able to keep Kinski longer. However, I do like the irony in this death scene; Dr. Sturges has just completed his life’s work, and in the moment of scientific triumph is immediately garroted by an assassin from behind, never to be credited for his discovery, with the added assumption that it will lay to rest forever or that someone else will steal the credit. During the struggle, the newly reanimated corpse blankly watches on; too bad he doesn’t smile because that would’ve made a neat little visual reference to the title.
Back at the mansion, another story is developing now that Greta has fully recovered. Everyone loves her and wants her to stay, and she in turn romantically warms up to both Walter and his wife Eva (Angela Bo – here dubbed by Carolyn De Fonseca) in what turns into a short lived sex triangle melodrama. Greta, being so beautiful, has captured Walter’s interest, but this makes Eva jealous, and she later tries to drown Greta in the bath tub, but stops short. The two of them smile at one another, as if Eva was playing around, prompting a love scene between the two. Later on, Eva spies on her husband and Greta making love, which is like a double heartbreak for her, since she loves them both. It ends up being too much for Eva to stomach, and she endeavors to get rid of Greta in what leads to a murder plot influenced by Poe’s The Black Cat that is the most intense walled up murder scene I’ve ever seen. The pleas Greta makes for her life are very convincing.
After a most brilliant exposition during a masquerade party, which I like to think is a slight tribute to Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, Ewa Aulin’s character transitions into some sort of death angel of deliverance, where the movie will definitely seem like it’s picking up for the more restless crowd.
Even with its gothic beauty there’s something uneasy about the portrayal of humanity in the film, as it kind of paints a bleak view of human interaction. A lot of the characters, especially Greta, Franz, and Dr. Sturges, are very appealing and memorable, but there are no good or moral characters, save for the clueless Inspector Dannick (Attilio Dottesio). There’s an empty sense of cosmic redemption after Greta claims a number of immoral victims, all of whom had wronged her in some way in her life or afterlife.
Aulin plays Greta with an externally sweet, innocent look, before and even after her deadly transformation, and I really think it works. The visuals of her stalking around dungeons and graveyards, slowly pursuing and claiming her victims, kind of like Jason Voorhees, is a marvelous visual that makes for some great imagery to stick in the memory long after the film has ended. The quick-edit, close-up spook shots of Greta in excessive, so-so zombie makeup gives it just the right measure of added grotesque monster movie flair.
Written, directed, and photographed by Joe D’Amato, Death Smiles is arguably his best work. It really succeeds as a moody gothic horror film that isn’t adverse to showing a little giallo influence with an off-screen mystery killer and roaming POV cam that’s usually peering around walls or trees. One of the images that always stuck with me in this film is the low camera angle shot of Luciano Rossi traveling with a peculiar gait through the forest. I get hypnotized every time when the maid, Gertrude (Carla Mancini), is being chased by the creepy Franz, who may or may not be real at this point, through a long and dreamy forest, before she meets her grizzly demise by a freakin’ double barrel to the face!? Moreover, most of the murders in this movie are surprisingly brutal and unpleasant, including the most terrifying and elongated deadly cat attack I’ve ever seen; anyone with a phobia for ocular trauma might have a hard time with it.
© At the Mansion of Madness