Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Honourable mentions: Death Smiles at Murder


Ahh… Italian Horror, especially from the 1970s. There is just something about it, even when it has a plot as derivative and messed up as this 1973 film by Joe D’Amato. This isn’t a vampire movie, though it does have some form of re-animated corpse or undead in it. However there is a moment within it that owes a huge debt to one of the classic vampire tales (indeed it rips it off mercilessly).

Franz with Greta's corpseThe film actually begins with the hunchback Franz (Luciano Rossi) sat vigil with the corpse of his sister Greta (Ewa Aulin). Within a series of flashbacks we see that he raped her at some point and yet, afterwards, that assault seemed to have turned into an incestuous relationship. We see them playful in the countryside and her meeting a man, Dr Von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), and it is clear that she falls for him. Franz declares to the corpse that they killed her. Actually, we later discover that she died during childbirth and that the child died also.

coachman impaledCut forward three years and Walter Von Ravensbrück (Sergio Doria), the son of Dr Von Ravensbrück who, mysteriously, obviously never met his step-mother, and his wife Eva (Angela Bo) are having tea in the garden. The film is not entirely clear but we assume it is his father’s house, though his father moved away after the death of Greta. It is here that the lift from a vampire classic comes into the film. A carriage comes hurtling down the road and overturns at their home. The driver is impaled and a girl is found unconscious within. We can see it is Greta.

Of course this is very Carmilla. We discover that the girl has lost her memory (or so she claims) and they only know her name due to a medallion she wears (it has her name and a year (of her death) on the front). We then get a bizarre moment where the local doctor, Sturges (Klaus Kinski), examines her.

Sturges examines GretaI say it is bizarre as he puts a stethoscope to her chest and looks confused – perhaps he cannot hear a heartbeat but the film doesn’t actually say. He declares that she is in shock, hands Eva some medicine to give her and waits to do a proper examination. When this occurs he notices the medallion and the fact that it has a formula on its reverse. It is clear he recognises it and, in a strange moment, he seems to push a needle into Greta’s eye with no bad effect. This was reminiscent of the vampire killing method in Black Sunday but, I am sure, coincidental. Also during this scene the maid, Gertrude, seems to have the side of her neck cut and the wound vanishes and appears on Greta’s neck.

Why the weirdness, I don’t know. The narrative of the film is very confused. We later discover that Franz used an Incan formula to bring Greta back and that Sturges has been working on something similar. He perfects it later, in a re-animator like moment, and is murdered (assailant unseen) for his trouble. The reanimated corpse, just revived by Sturges, seems to die again when his medallion is removed and yet we do see Greta without hers.

risen victimThe hint through the film is that other corpses are brought back. The coachman seems to have rotted when Sturges looks at him – remember he died by impalement – and a victim is trapped with one of Greta’s earlier victims who comes back to life and (presumably as we only hear screams) kills him.

Greta haunts graveyardThe film begins with a slow pace and sees Walter fall in love with Greta. It then has Eva fall in love with her also (Greta does seem to put it about quite cheerfully). The tempo of the film changes after Eva becomes jealous of Greta and Walter and, in a very Poe moment, walls the girl up in the cellar. At that point a cat appears in the film – D’Amato being very deliberate in showing us this – and later it seems that Greta can either become the cat or control it. This owes much to Carmilla as well, as Carmilla’s transformation of choice was into a cat.

true face revealedWe also discover that the fresh faced appearance of Greta is not her true face but, post walling up, she also appears as a desiccated corpse and how she appears seems to be by her choice. The film, as I have mentioned, is not very narrative coherent and I should mention the twist at the very end that had no logical sense or, indeed, any build up or hint. Bizarre.

All told, however, whilst confusing there is something mesmerising about the film. Though Greta is clearly sentient I don’t really think this would fall as a vampire movie but the influence of Carmilla (as well as many other horror genre staples) is clear.

The imdb page is here.


House of Karnstein said...

I love this film and for me personally, the epitome of eurocult dreaminess. Even with the confusing plot I find the film fascinating and it haunts me like no other 70's Italian horror movie. The score is beautifully breathtaking and the photography is some of the best Joe ever shot. Favorite scenes include the "masque party game" and "Greta in the graveyard (switching from beauty to reanimated corpse)". I like to think of Greta as a bit of an "avenging Angel" and seems to be pulling the strings on all the deaths. I think she may have the ability to shapeshift into a cat or that of another dead woman. Not to mention we see her at the end as the old wife of the old inspector (a scene that predates a similar shot that would be used in BURNT OFFERINGS 4 years later) where upon end credits start ambiguously rolling and the film's secrets are left up to the viewer to decide. The only film Joe ever put his original "name stamp" on and we are left with a poetic non-linear masterpiece that the director would never reach in heights again on his films that followed. I only wish he'd have made more films in this vein, with this style/vision. For one wanting to check out what the 70's cinematic euro dreamfilm is all about, this is a good introduction.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

HofK, absolutely fair comment.

Where you say "Even with the confusing plot I find the film fascinating and it haunts me like no other 70's Italian horror movie." I believe I was attempting to say much the same with "whilst confusing there is something mesmerising about the film"

underlinimg, of course, that great minds think alike. ;)