Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media
Death Smiles at Murder (1972)
Review by Dan Taylor | Available from Xploited Cinema

Like Jess Franco's hypnotic VENUS IN FURS (which, ironically, also features Klaus Kinski), I defy viewers to watch Joe D'Amato's trippy, but fascinating, DEATH SMILES AT MURDER and come up with a rational explanation for the events that take place. And, again like FURS, the film's existential, haunting, dreamlike quality does nothing to detract from the enjoyment of what takes place on screen.

DEATH opens on the corpse of a beautiful girl laid out for viewing. A hunchback mourner – who could be the woman's brother, husband or lover – grimly sobs that "they" killed her and he did nothing to stop them. Flashbacks show the hunchback chasing the woman through the woods as she taunts, "If you catch me I'll let you do anything you want… anything." But alas, poor hunchback, she has found another man.

Cut to a violent carriage crash – in which the driver gets a nice long pole through the belly in one of the flick's grossout moments – that lands the amnesia stricken Greta (Ewa Aulin) on the doorstep of Eva (Angela Bo) and Walter (Sergio Doria), a wealthy couple who call in Dr. Sturges (Kinski) to examine her.

The examination is where we get our first glimpse that something's not quite right with the film and I don't mean Klaus's vein-poppingly intense stare as the red hot Greta (a former Miss Sweden) slips out of her dress and reveals turn-of-the-century lingerie for the good doc to get an eyeful of. No, I'm referring more to when Sturges sticks a pin in Greta's eye in one of those "wait, did I just see what I think I saw?" moments.

Pretty soon it's evident that Walter has taken a shining to Greta, much to Eva's dismay. Meanwhile, in the secret chamber under his lab we discover that the good doctor Sturges has been using the ancient formula found on Greta's necklace to reanimate corpses. (Watching this sequence one can't help but wonder what role it may have had in influencing the look of Stuart Gordon's classic RE-ANIMATOR.) After spending most of his time staring at Greta's stockings, writing jibberish on a chalkboard and jiggling test tubes in "Research Klaus" mode, we bid The German Olivier farewell in one of his trademark death scenes.

But who is the killer? And why?

From here on out DEATH SMILES gets trippier and trippier and tripper like an episode of NIGHT GALLERY on acid. Eva tries to drown a bathing Greta, ends up having a little Euro-lez action with her and then decides to brick her up in the house's catacombs. A cop investigating Greta's "disappearance" (Attilio Dotessio) keeps showing up to stick his nose in things like a giallo while Greta returns from the grave at a costume party that seems like something out of one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.

By the end of DEATH SMILES AT MURDER you'll surely be scratching your head and wondering what the hell it's all about as much as I was. Plotless and at times quite inane, the flick is still fun to watch. D'Amato almost ruins the mood with a few over-the-top effects sequences that he holds for a bit too long (the shotgun blast to the face and Greta's "decaying" makeup are the best, or worst, examples), but even that can be excused. After all, this is the man who would go on to make the notorious BURIED ALIVE and THE GRIM REAPER, so what do you expect? Some of the cast hairdos seem a bit out of place, more befitting a 70s porno flick than a horror film and Klaus fans will be disappointed to see their hero disappear after the flick's first reel, but DEATH SMILES is a worthwhile trip through surreal 70s horror territory.


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