Month of the Alternative Living Dead

La Morte ha sorriso all'assassino


Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.

-- Wallace Stevens, "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

If you haven't seen this film, don't read this review.

I guess it's a little odd that I should preface my first review in 6 months with a warning not to read it. But there is really only one way to experience La Morte ha sorriso all'assassino for the first time, and that is with no preparation whatsoever. The less you know about the movie, the better. It will probably infuriate you with its absolute refusal to make sense, at least for its first two-thirds; still, you may find the experience all the more rewarding for putting up with it until the end.

I have two reasons for writing about a movie for which I consider even the cast list a mild spoiler: first, I am three months overdue for a B-Masters' Roundtable — hell, I'm not even in the right year any more. Second, going into detail about the movie allows me to conclude the review with a pun so excruciatingly weak that it would cause the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories to hide under the bed and whimper. How could I resist?

(Still with me? I thought so. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

La Morte ha sorriso all'assassino was Aristide Massaccesi's first credited film as a director. For anybody who knows the details of Massaccesi's later career, the movie is likely to come as a bit of a shock.

Massaccesi is best known by the pseudonym "Joe D'Amato" (though he had a hundred others): he was a talented cinematographer, and a canny producer; while as a director he was... well... prolific. But above all other things, he was a businessman who saw his films as commercial product more than as artistic or technical achievements. Throughout his career he shifted genres according to what was popular at the time: in the early 70's, when soft-core sex films were very much in vogue, he made soft-core sex films; in the late 70's and early 80's, when Italian pop cinema was awash in graphic bloodshed, Massaccesi made some of the most extreme gore films the genre had yet seen. As both of these genres waned in popularity, Massaccesi moved into hard-core sex, the genre that would represent the bulk of his output. His friend Lucio Fulci lamented, in a Fangoria interview taken just before Fulci's death, that Massaccesi's directing style had devolved by the mid-90's into merely shouting "Action... Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!" at his actors1. But so what if his films grew emptier as the years went on? So what if the scripts came to suck as consistently as his "actresses", or the budgets sometimes ran out before the films were quite ready? Who cared? If the flick could be released cheaply enough, and it made enough money to cover expenses, then the ledger sheet entries were the only reviews Massaccesi needed.

But La morte... was different. La morte... gave the young Massaccesi his first chance at working with an internationally-known cast, including Klaus Kinski and Ewa Aulin (Candy). He had a fairly large budget at his disposal, and was given a free hand as writer, cinematographer and director. This was his chance to shine — to show the world what he could do. And, like many a young auteur, he overreached a bit. It's a good thing he did, because he never attempted anything else like it again. The movie is the only record we have of what sort of things Aristide Massaccesi was capable of before the commerce-driven "Joe D'Amato" took over.

The movie begins in 1906. We won't realize this for a while yet, but it helps make things clearer if you know this in advance. A young man named Franz (Luciano Rossi) stands keening over the bier of his sister (Ewa Aulin). They have done this, he says; they have taken her away from him.

Who are they? Well, Franz is the sort of weedy, deranged-looking fellow whom we'd expect to rave about them and what they'd done, even if it's not particularly clear who they might be. We learn from a series of highly-stylized flashbacks that Franz and his sister had a mutually abusive relationship: she would take a cruel delight in teasing him until he lost control, tore her clothes off, and — JUMP CUT — start again from Step 1 (Massaccesi cutting away from the kinky bits? Incredible). But then, one day in the middle of a less-than-wholesome game of tag, the girl had unexpectedly run into someone she knew...

... Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, in the worst brown suit you're ever likely to see, and sporting a 70's haircut that has to be seen to be appreciated:

Jack Rossi-Stuart in convincing period garb. Not.

He looks like he's just stepped out of a 70's men's magazine liquor ad — so I guess it's hardly surprising the girl forgets all about her kinky hunchbacked brother and melts in Jack's arms. Naturally, this throws Franz into a helpless rage.

None of this yet explains who they are, or how they caused the girl to die. Did Jack Rossi-Stuart kill her? Did the vile brother murder his sister out of jealousy? Either way, it's still a he and not a they who's to blame. But that's the way this film operates: it follows its questions with still more questions.

Suddenly it's three years later — though it will be another 10 minutes or so before we learn it's three years later — and we find ourselves in a completely different movie outside the mansion of Walter von Ravensbrück and his wife, Eva. The young couple are having tea in their garden when a passing coach overturns on the road in front of them. The couple and their servant Simeon rush to help: the coachman has been crushed to death, but the carriage's sole occupant is still alive, though unconscious.

Surprise! It's the dead girl from the prologue.

(It would have been helpful for the movie to give us some idea that this is all taking place after what we've already seen. For all we know, this is all another flashback. Our only clue that the dead girl has somehow come back from the grave is the similarity of this scene to the arrival of the vampire Carmilla in Sheridan LeFanu's novella. Clearly she's some sort of undead creature, though what kind of undead is not yet so clear.)

The girl is taken into the house, while Simeon goes to summon the local police inspector and the local physician, Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski). When Sturges arrives, the girl is conscious again; but she is unable to tell him anything. She claims to have lost her memory completely after the accident. Sturges checks the girl's heartbeat — and seems to be a little disturbed by what he hears (or perhaps fails to hear... then again, this is Klaus Kinski, who ALWAYS looks disturbed).

The doctor gives Walter some perfunctory instructions for the girl's care and sends him away. The, when he's left alone with her to complete his examination, he makes some peculiar discoveries. First, he finds the words "Greta — 1906" inscribed on a charm around her neck. Apparently the girl's name is Greta, and the year 1906 — three years ago, we're informed — must have some special significance for her. Next, Sturges turns the charm over in his hand — and is thunderstruck by what he sees there. To us, it looks like nothing more than abstract symbols, but to Sturges they suggest something momentous. Slowly and deliberately, he removes a long pin from his cravat. As Greta stares back at him calmly — smiling, even — Sturges sinks the pin deep into her unblinking eye...

Fans of Mario Bava or Jess Franco will probably recognize this as a folk method for killing a vampire2. Evidently Dr. Sturges has read "Carmilla", too. But Greta, far from being destroyed when her eye is pierced, is completely unfazed by the needle.

I should point out that though this scene is hard to watch for people who are squeamish about eyes (like me), it's really an example of Massaccesi's incredible technical skill. Just as Fulci and Sergio Salvati did years later in Zombi 2, Massaccesi uses judicious cuts to raise the tension of the scene (he's not going to — he couldn't — they're not going to show us — GAAK! They are! They ARE!). And it's precisely because no fake eyeballs are used that we're unlikely to notice the technique Massaccesi is using. The needle is simply passing to the side of Ewa Aulin's face... but the reflection of the needle on the surface of the girl's eye makes it look as though the needle is going straight into the center of her cornea. We only notice the effect if we watch the scene very carefully... which we're unlikely to do, because we're still recoiling in shock from the ghastliness and the unexpectedness of it all.


So apparently Greta is not a vampire. Later on, we'll discover that she can re-animate the bodies of her victims to do her bidding — but aside from this, it seems pretty safe to say she's not a vampire. Then what is she? And what did Sturges see that made him think of the walking dead?

During this little tableau, the Ravensbrück's maid has been peering through a screen at Greta as she disrobes for her examination. We may think (as Simeon thinks when he catches her) that she's merely a voyeur... and in an Italian Gothic of this vintage, a lesbian voyeur is hardly unexpected. But this isn't the case. The maid is being haunted by Franz, Greta's hunchbacked brother. I use the term "haunted" in its broadest sense, though: we don't know whether Franz is alive or dead, or if the visions the maid is having are real, or are occuring only in her imagination. He seems to stick a knife into her neck, purely for the joy of watching her bleed... yet her skin is unbroken; and as Dr. Sturges notes, it's Greta's throat that bears a scar.

Whatever the source of the visions of Franz, they are too much for the maid to bear. Though Franz (or the apparition of Franz, anyway) tries to stop her, she packs her bags and runs off without informing anyone of her intentions. The hunchback, real or imaginary, chases her down the road in one of the movie's most striking and effective scenes. It's unusual to see a "ghostly" pursuit like this one shot in radiant daylight; and the sight of the hunchback loping after his quarry, his arms flapping by his sides, should seem more like a tasteless joke than an image of horror. But as filmed by Massaccesi, using a fish-eye lens to heighten its unreality, it's genuinely unnerving.

And, typically for this movie, the scene ends in an unexpected way. Rather than coming face-to-face with the phantom that's chasing her, the maid runs into the barrel of a gun. We don't see who's holding the gun, but it's obviously someone she recognizes. Though she swears she'll never tell anyone what she knows, her pleas are to no avail: the unseen killer shoots her point-blank in the face.

The maid's body is never found. The Ravensbrücks and Simeon wonder what could have made her run off so suddenly, after three years — yes, three years — of faithful service. (Hmmmmm... ) Since it's obvious that the maid's visions of Franz, whether as a ghost or a hallucination, were only visions after all, we're left with the suspicion that Greta must have something to do with the murder. Later on, Greta's skill with a hunting rifle — notwithstanding her claims never to have used one before — will remind us of our suspicions. However, Greta's supposed to be lying sedated in her room in the house. Can she be in two places at once? If so, then we're still left with the burning question: what sort of creature is she?

Whatever Greta may be, she's certainly not a zombie. Zombies aren't generally beautiful, charming... and sexually desirable. Walter soon finds himself completely enthralled by Greta, while his wife Eva looks on and seethes with jealousy. As Greta and Walter drift closer together, Eva finally takes drastic action and attempts to drown Greta in her bath. She can't go through with it, though: once the girl's lovely naked body is helpless — suspiciously helpless, really — beneath her fingers, Eva is overwhelmed by a different set of emotions... and we realize we've misunderstood the object of Eva's jealousy.

(So it seems we've sidestepped from "Carmilla" into Pasolini's Teorema. Anyway, it wouldn't be a 70's Italian horror movie, let alone a Massaccesi flick, without the obligatory lesbian interlude.)

The trouble is, even though Eva's got Greta to bed first, Greta's still more interested in Walter. Eva is disgusted to find that she's gone off for a tryst with her husband almost before her own sheets have cooled. So early one morning...

No; wait. I'm treating this movie as though it had a clear linear structure, and that's not the case. Curse my bourgeois reliance on narrative flow! Before I get to what Eva decides to do, there's at least one more development I should mention:

Throughout the movie so far we've seen some brief intercuts of Dr. Sturges in his laboratory, mixing colored fluids is cone-shaped flasks and writing peculiar symbols on his chalkboard. Whatever it was Sturges saw on Greta's amulet, it's given him a vital clue in his occult experiments, and eventually we discover what those experiments really are. In his basement (under a secret door hidden by a snake tank) Sturges has a second laboratory, where his deaf-mute henchman keeps a stack of cadavers on ice. Using the key Greta's amulet has provided him, Sturges attempts to bring a dead man back to life — we've bounced out of "Carmilla" and ended up in "Frankenstein".

Now, you might think that Klaus Kinski raising people from the dead would be enough for an entire movie; but in this case, no sooner has he succeeded — no sooner has the corpse opened its eyes and sat up on the table — when that pesky unseen assassin emerges from the shadows and kills them both. Yes, that's right: Klaus Kinski's entire role in the film is little more than an extended cameo. Oh — and then the killer goes and kills the mute henchman, just for tidiness's sake.

Now then: back to Eva.

Early one morning, when Walter has gone into town for the day, Eva awakens Greta and tells her she has a secret she wants to share with her. She's bought a present for her husband, and she wants Greta to see it before Walter comes back. She doesn't mention what the present is supposed to be... although a cask of amontillado would be my guess. Eva leads Greta into the catacombs under the house, then locks her into a windowless niche and bricks up the entrance. Through the heavy door Greta pleads for her life; but Eva, in spite of her desire for Greta, keeps working through her tears.

Walter is devastated to learn that Greta has disappeared as mysteriously as she arrived. He calls in the local detective, Inspector Dannick, to search for her; but since Inspector Dannick is an Italian horror movie detective, he's completely inept. He notices that all Greta's clothing is still in the house, yet never stops to think that someone in the house might have played a part in her disappearance. He also fails to search the property carefully enough to find the recently bricked-up doorway.

Up to this point, Greta has been set up as the Walking Dead Girl. We've been guessing that she is responsible for the three murders so far — four if you count the guy in Sturges's laboratory who was already dead — five if you count the coachman (and, really: who counts the coachman?). Now Eva's killed her. What the hell is going on here? What happens when you take a girl who's come back from the dead, presumably with some sort of score to settle... and you kill her all over again?

(Nothing good, I imagine.)

Time goes by, and Walter resigns himself to his loss with a heavy heart. Eva, though, feels much better, and decides to throw a masked ball to lift her husband out of his funk. It doesn't work: Walter sits off on the sidelines, offering at best a wistful smile to the partygoers. Eva, on the other hand, drinks too much and gets boisterous. She starts playing a game: she blindfolds herself, and the masked guests dance in a circle around her; when the music comes to a sudden stop, the dancers freeze in place, and Eva, removing her blindfold, tries to guess the identity of the person in front of her. Alcohol is the only thing that makes this game difficult... until Eva is faced with a guest she can't identify: a mysterious figure dressed in a red robe (hang on, folks: that's two so far, but we're going for a triple Poe reference). When the strange woman lowers her mask...

Do I really have to tell you who, or what, she is?

Eva is the only one to understand the significance of what she's seen (Walter is still distracted, and sees nothing). Panic-stricken, she runs into the catacombs and begins tearing down the wall she built. Though the wall was undisturbed, and there was apparently no other way out of the cell, Greta's body is gone. All that's left behind the wall is a cat, which jumps out at Eva yowling (and there it is — triple Poe score!).

Of course the cat makes no sense except as a literary reference. If it has been a real cat, it would have starved to death along with Greta. Later on, though, we'll find that one of Greta's supernatural powers is the ability to turn random objects into cats.

Greta appears at the top of the stairway to the catacombs, and Eva, still bewildered, chases her back up into the house. But her second death has brought about some changes in Greta: we now find out that she can absolutely be in two places at the same time, and locked doors are no barrier to her. When she approaches her intended victim in one direction, she still seems to be the beautiful, desirable girl she was before; but when her quarry turns to run away, it's a withered corpse in Greta's clothing that waits around the next corner. Eva sees the horrible true face of the creature she's betrayed; and though she flees ever higher into the house, Greta is inescapable.

Downstairs in the ballroom, Walter and the guests hear a scream and a thud — as Eva falls from the upper floor and is pulped on the stones below.

I warned you not to read this far if you hadn't seen the movie; and if you have seen the movie already, you'll probably understand why. Aside from any question of spoilers, the most important problem with my summary is that it totally mischaracterizes the film. In order to make sense of the story, I've had to untangle it and present it as though it were developed in a straightforward, linear manner. To do so is to completely ignore the style of the film, which is both its strongest and weakest point, and which is the only real reason for paying any attention to the movie in the first place. For instance, the plot as I've described it plays out over a longer duration than the description might suggest. The pace is slowed by a succession of walks, and dreams, and long lingering glances, all made to seem even more languid by the minimal incidental music. The hints we get as to what's actually going on are broken up and spaced out with seemingly-unrelated interludes. In the world of the film, the very air seems to have turned to thick syrup, slowing everything down and bathing time and space in a hazy unreality.

But even my bald synopsis should point out how structurally odd the story is. All through the movie we've been waiting for something to happen, something presumably involving this mysterious young girl. First we expect some sort of vampire story à la Carmilla; then, with the appearance of Franz we begin to expect a ghost story; neither expectation is fulfilled. Suddenly there's a murderer popping up in the strangest places, and we expect this to become the focus of the plot; but even in this we are mistaken. For crying out loud, Klaus Kinski raises a man from the dead, and even this goes past like an afterthought. More time is devoted to the sexual intrigues of the Ravensbrücks than to this, or to any of the other horrific elements. Actually, the movie's half over before anybody does anything that we can explain to ourselves using the simple rules of Cause and Effect — and that's Eva's murder of Greta... which, decisive though it may be, is hardly what we've been expecting.

I stress all this now, because something shocking is about to happen to the story: it's about to start making sense. The shock will really only be apparent to you if you've watched the movie so far without being prepared for it. In fact, the explanations we begin to get are incomplete and inadequate — and furthermore, the very last moments of the film (which I do not intend to reveal) upset everything and turn the whole, perilously-stable story into a smoking heap of rubble... But by this point, two-thirds of the way through the movie, we're so grateful for any kind of solid information that we're liable not to notice how weak the explanations really are.

At Eva's funeral, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart suddenly comes back into the story. As we might have guessed from the identical hairstyles of the characters, Rossi-Stuart's character is really Walter's father, who has just returned from an inexplicable three-year absence. The slow and solemn ceremony of the Service for the Dead lends Massaccesi the perfect opportunity to go in for one of his slow and solemn flashbacks, and we learn what really happened to Greta in 1906: as the elder Ravenbrück's mistress, she had died giving birth to a long-dead stillborn child. This is what Franz meant when he had raged against them, the ones who had taken Greta from him: they are the Ravensbrücks, — father and unborn child equally guilty of murder — and the sins of the father in Franz's eyes staining Ravensbrück's son and daughter-in-law as well (we know that the dead child was just as likely to have been Franz's own... but clearly Franz isn't capable of seeing this for himself).

Then, in the middle of his reveries, the elder Ravensbrück looks up — and catches sight of a familiar figure, wearing a red dress, standing by a distant mausoleum. A second glance, and the all-too-familiar figure has disappeared; it might never have been there in the first place. But the one unnerving, tantalizing glimpse makes Ravensbrück decide to stay behind in the cemetery after his son and the others have gone.

Ravensbrück père knows just where he's going: straight to the tomb of Greta von Holstein, 1885 - 1906. Yes; unbelievably enough, this mysterious Greta, whom nobody seems to have recognized, turns out to have been a local girl from an aristocratic family... and all the tragic events of 1906 seem to have occurred without anybody noticing. If anything, this seems even more of a stretch than the idea of the dead coming back to life.

Ravensbrück feels a hand on his shoulder; and when he turns, there is the sweet-faced, beautiful young girl he knows is dead. But Greta claims it was all a lie; that her brother had simply arranged for her disappearance. Now that he's returned, they can be together again, says Greta... and all at once, the girl is gone, and in her place stands a ghastly ruin wearing Greta's clothing.

Ravensbrück recoils in horror, and runs off through the cemetery. But Greta (or the thing which she's become) seems to be able to pursue him from every direction at once. When he doubles back to avoid her in front of him, he suddenly finds her other shape waiting just behind him. The only place for him to hide turns out to be the still-open vault of the Ravensbrücks, but (ahem) that doesn't stay open for long. And there's no comfort for him within, either, as the broken body of his daughter-in-law sits up in its coffin and lurches toward him...

There are only a few more minutes remaining to the film, so I suppose you know what to expect: a bloodbath, in which most of the remaining characters (past and present) end up dead. That's hardly surprising; but what is surprising is this: Greta's victims have a habit of standing in one place and doing nothing to defend themselves while they're slashed to pieces by knives or claws. This is one of the few reminders we have that the man who wrote and directed this film is the same man who was responsible for Porno Holocaust a decade or so later, in which the monster's victims actually have to help him along as he kills them.

We are left with only poor Inspector Dannick to help us make sense of what remains. Just a few minutes before the end of the movie, the inspector decides to visit a friend of his: an occultist whose very existence has been unknown to us until now. This Professor Kempte is able to decipher (at least in part) the inscription found on Greta's charm — which was, in turn, found clutched in the stiffened hand of one of her last victims. It seems it's a symbol used by the ancient Inca civilization. It had something to do with a ceremony for raising a dead king from his tomb... but the only modern scholar to come close to deciphering it fully was a man named Franz von Holstein. He might have some idea what the charm is supposed to mean, but unfortunately nobody has seen or heard from him since his sister died in 1906.

So it's all the Incas' fault, is it? You might as well blame it on the Methodists, for all the sense that makes. But at least this gives us some explanation of how the whole crazy story comes together. It's a little bit like putting in the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, stepping back from your labors, and realizing that the picture on the completed puzzle is... an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. To hell with it... I'll take what I can get. At least until that bizarre final scene, which (to continue the simile) not only breaks up the jigsaw puzzle, but also kicks over the table — and then sets fire to the room, just for good measure.

It was over six years before Massaccesi would release his next true horror film, but that film — Buio Omega/Buried Alive/Beyond the Darkness — is concerned with much the same theme. Once again, an obsessed young man tries to hold onto his belovèd even beyond death; and once again, death proves to be much stronger than love. But Buio Omega is a very different film from La morte..., and one which has more in common with the bulk of his output. Where La morte... is subtle and ambiguous, stretching narrative to its breaking point (and maybe a little beyond), Buio Omega is brutally simple and direct. La morte... is a costume piece, while Buio Omega is aggressively modern; and the relative restraint shown in the earlier film by Aristide Massaccesi is totally alien to the working methods of "Joe D'Amato".

No — you won't find anything else quite like La morte ha sorriso all'assassino in the rest of Massaccesi's filmography. It's not all that easy to find parallels anywhere else, either. Its melancholy, dreamlike atmosphere brings it closer to the spirit of Poe than anything Roger Corman ever made. The film of which it reminds me most is Juan Luis Buñuel's under-rated Leonor, made 2 years after Massaccesi's film. Buñuel's film also concerns a man who brings his lost love back from the dead, with horrifying results for everyone around him. There are significant differences — Buñuel's film goes more deeply into character than Massaccesi's, which is more concerned with the mechanics of storytelling (that is, seeing how far thay can be pushed without breaking). But the striking similarity is the way the living dead woman is portrayed: in both films, it is never clear until the end whether or not she is aware of what she has become. Of course, Ewa Aulin is nowhere near as good an actress as her fellow Scandinavian Liv Ullman; as Leonor, Ullman gave a fine performance as a woman whose heart grows colder as the rest of her body warms up. But in a way, Aulin's limited range makes the real nature of her Greta all the more ambiguous, which suits Massaccesi's film.

And while we're on the subject: what exactly is Greta? At first there are heavy hints she may be a vampire... but as we've seen, this turns out not to be true. Though she's been brought back from the dead by magic, she certainly doesn't fit the classical definition of a zombie. After she's killed (?) the second time, she starts behaving very much like a ghost... but it's a peculiarly corporeal ghost that goes around carving people up with razors.

SO: what is she? It's the sort of question that can probably only be answered with an atrocious pun. Since she died giving birth to a stillborn child, she must be...SOME BODY'S MUMMY3.

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1. Berger, Howard. "The Prince of Italian Terror." Fangoria 154 July 1996: 82

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2.... though I thought it had to be the left eye that was pierced... and Sturges conducts his experiment with Greta's right.

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3. BA-DUM BUM. Thank you! You've been a wonderful audience.

Now if only Greta had been raised from the dead by Aztec magic instead of Inca: then she would have been Some Body's Aztec Mummy. But I guess you can't have everything.

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