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  Smile Before Death Beware the angel-eyed ingenue
Year: 1972
Director: Silvio Amadio
Stars: Jenny Tamburi, Silvano Tranquilli, Rosalba Neri, Hiram Keller, Dana Ghia
Genre: Horror, Sex, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Italian giallo specialist Silvio Amadio cuts to the chase at the start of Smile Before Death as a woman in a frightful yellow nightgown has her throat cut. Police rule Dorothy Thompson’s death a suicide. Shortly thereafter, sixteen year old Nancy Thompson (Jenny Tamburi, billed under the stage name Luciana Della Robbia) arrives from boarding school to live at her mother’s villa, now occupied by a close friend, slinky photographer Gianna (Rosalba Neri). Nancy soon discovers her stepfather, Marco (Silvano Tranquilli) is having an affair with Gianna, but that her mother was no saint either. While Nancy’s suspicions are further roused by an inquisitive housekeeper (Dana Ghia), it becomes apparent Marco and Gianna are plotting to kill the young woman so they can steal her inheritance. However, Gianna comes to suspect Marco has grown a little too enamoured of Nancy’s nubile charms.

Sporting a delightfully catchy theme song composed by Bob Derament with bubbly vocals from Edda Della Orso, Smile Before Death essentially inverts the premise of Amadio’s more widely celebrated giallo Amuck! (1971). Amadio tends to favour plots where wide-eyed innocents are drawn into sexual shenanigans, often seduced by a sultry bisexual diva played by Rosalba Neri. Neri is outstanding as always but the real star turn comes from Jenny Tamburi. An erotic film starlet, Tamburini graced the likes of Seduction (1973) and Frankenstein, Italian Style (1976) as well as several more respectable outings before switching careers to become a casting director and consultant for the Miss Italy pageant. She pulls off a remarkable transformation from sweet schoolgirl to something altogether less wholesome.

As implied by her name, the heroine subverts the traditional concept of a Nancy Drew-like teen sleuth, only employing seduction as much as deduction to ferret out the killer and not for wholly altruistic reasons. Amadio’s fragmented storytelling requires close concentration but succeeds in keeping the viewer off-balance. What at first seems to be a standard sub-Sadean tale of swinging libertines corrupting then destroying a virginal innocent instead masks a far more complex agenda. Flashbacks fill in the details regarding Dorothy’s death but although the identity of the killer is revealed halfway through, this revelation proves simply a springboard for a host of other mysteries, skillfully handled by Amadio.

The muddy brown prints on most available video versions spoil the stylish scope photography of Silvano Ippoliti. A great shame given the groovy set design and far-out Seventies fashions are part of the film’s charm. Inevitably, given this comes from the same lipstick lesbian fixated mind behind both Amuck! and sexploitation drama So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious (1975), young Nancy sets about seducing both Marco and Gianna, although their sapphic sexploits unfold in less lingering detail than Neri’s infamous tryst with Barbara Bouchet. Speaking of babelicious Barbara, keep an eye out for the party scene with a young lady shaking her stuff in skintight red jeans. Looks an awful lot like Miss Bouchet.

Smile Before Death also features a small but significant role for Hiram Keller, a handsome but limited American actor who scored a prestigious first gig with Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) then remained in Italy for several more modest movies, including Anthonio Margheriti’s oddball giallo Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973). Things build to a deliciously twisted finale... until the film cops out with a rather silly and convoluted case of karmic retribution. A reminder that no matter how salacious, the giallo genre was often guilty of pandering to square bourgeois morality.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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