Exploitation hack-of-all-trades Joe D’Amato (a.k.a. Aristide Massaccesi) launched his career with a flop spaghetti western that he subsequently disowned, making this surreal schlock-horror opus his “official” directorial debut. In the early 1900s mad hunchback Franz (Luciano Rossi) mourns over the corpse of his beautiful blonde sister Greta von Holstein (Ewa Aulin) with whom he was having an incestuous love affair. That is, until the day she was courted by a handsome stranger (Euro-horror stalwart Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). We jump abruptly to a runaway carriage that crashes in front of startled aristocrat Walter von Ravensbruck (Sergio Doria) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo), who discover a miraculously revived Greta is its only passenger.
Taking the young amnesiac into their home, they enlist the aid of family physician Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski, uh-oh…). He performs an unorthodox medical examination by convincing Greta to strip down to her racy underwear, then shoves a needle through her eyeball in gruesome close-up. However, it’s not her shapely figure that intrigues him so much as the mysterious medallion she wears. While a murderer stalks the castle grounds, gorgeous Greta seduces a smitten Walter and enjoys a torrid lesbian liaison with Eva, but the latter succumbs to jealousy and walls her alive inside the castle dungeon. Thereafter, Greta periodically returns as a phantom menace and drives Eva to an untimely death. As dogged Inspector Dannick (Attilio Dottesio) struggles to make sense of this mystery, Walter welcomes the return of his father Dr. Herbert von Ravensbruck (who looks about the same age as him!), who turns out to be none other than Greta’s long lost lover we glimpsed in flashback earlier. Pretty soon, he’s glimpsing ghostly Greta traipsing around the cemetery…
Ambiguous to the point of being nonsensical, La morte ha sorriso all’assassino (variously translated as Death Smiled at a Murder and Death Smiles on a Murderer) proves you don’t necessarily have to make any kind of sense to creep viewers out. Euro-horror often ignores logic to unfold like a waking nightmare and this film does so more poetically than most despite sometimes seeming like five different movies edited together. Whether by accident or design, this emerges as D’Amato’s most haunting movie especially when compared to his run of extreme splatter fare including Beyond the Darkness (1979) (with which this shares certain thematic concerns) and the cannibal gut-munchers Anthropophagus (1980) and Absurd (1981).
An eerie soundtrack by Berto Pisano coupled with D’Amato’s inspired visuals infuse the often loopy plot with an affecting romanticism and palpable dread. The lovely, doe-eyed and often underrated Ewa Aulin gives a bewitching turn as she alternates from winsome, giggly ingénue to spooky sad-eyed seductress and then a hideous walking corpse. She clearly enjoys playing the monster for a change. Klaus Kinski fans are liable to come away disappointed though, since he mostly potters around his laboratory plotting to steal the formula for eternal life engraved on Greta’s amulet until a regrettably swift exit.
D’Amato, who conceived the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Claudio Bernabei, borrows extensively from Edgar Allan Poe what with Greta being buried alive (she seems to have died at least three times?!), a creepy cat spying on protagonists and a costume ball that heralds the arrival of an avenging angel in red. As director-cinematographer he makes fine use of the sumptuous castle location, stages two impressively disorientating chase sequences where Greta pursues first Eva then Herbert, and keeps the movie high on gore (a maid graphically shotgunned in the face, a manservant razored to a bloody death) and gothic style. The future porno mogul also lovingly dwells on Greta’s varied sexual couplings, but actually turns them into a rather striking and poetic montage cutting between furtive glances around the dinner table and soft-focus lesbian and hetero lovemaking. You may never entirely figure out what is going on, but the stupendous finale involving a flying killer kitty bouquet of flowers lingers long in the memory as does the crazy final twist involving the Inspector’s hitherto unseen elderly wife.