Bluray Review: DEATH WALKS TWICE Collection
As a die-hard horror-phile, I owe a mound of gratitude to Dario Argento’s Suspiria for single-handedly introducing me to the foreign horror film. Before sitting through that amalgamation of bright-colored visuals and slick murder sequences, I had no idea that horror films were even made outside the U.S. Though the local mom and pop video houses and grocery stores spread around the area I was growing up in had some of them lining their shelves, I would have never known that they came from distant regions across the world. As a young teen living during the era of a very moral and conservative presidency, there was an unmistakable spark inside of me that had been lit after watching the original Friday the 13th that was yearning to become a bright, burning inferno. Growing up a very sheltered child, I attempted to find every book and periodical that would give me any insight on the slasher film, its origins and a reason why they were so popular, but always came up disappointingly empty-handed. A few years later, and after accidentally stumbling upon a copy of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film at the school library – a imperative must-read for any horror fan or someone curious about expanding their horror knowledge – my mind was suddenly bombarded with numerous images and endless film titles that had been made both across the Atlantic and other regions of the world. I checked the book out and took it home, making sure to cleverly and inconspicuously hide it in my backpack to avoid any unnecessary confrontations with my parents and found myself staying up late at night for the two and a half weeks I was allowed to have the book in my possession that followed, reading it page by page under the covers by flashlight. The more I read, the more the things that I saw while endlessly cruising video boxes everywhere we went began to make sense. Unfortunately, there were a good number of films listed and described in Michael Weldon’s fantastic – and essential – book that I was never able to locate and that I wouldn’t be able to gaze upon until I was living on my own in my early-to-mid-twenties. That was the time period when my ever-developing curiosity of the giallo genre of horror would begin to take shape and when my desire to begin collecting these films – and collecting horror films altogether – would take off into the stratosphere.
Every dedicated horror fan at one time or another has gazed upon at least one entry in the giallo genus of films: those wonderfully and absurdly-assembled crime stories or murder-mysteries surrounding victims being disposed of in fantastic and gory ways by an elusive killer having the sole distinguishing factor being that he (or she) wears a pair of shiny, black gloves. Some of these films ooze an unexplainable paradox of unapologetic sleaze and eerie brilliance, going on to be labeled as cinematic “classics” in their own right while a good majority of them are none other than experiments in mayhem and exercises in both blatant ineptness and visceral banality. These films are always over the top, somewhat preposterous when it comes to their storyline having one ask if said outlandishness is completely intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Yet, at the same time, they all manage to boast the traits of showcasing beautiful people (both women and men), gratuitous and sometimes unnecessary nudity (from both sexes), sensational and shocking scenes of violence and destruction, confusing and convoluted plotlines overpowered by baffling red herrings, and of course, the compulsory twist ending that either propels it into winning territory or has the viewer literally crushing the DVD under their feet out of sheer frustration. Unfortunately, watching one of these films is always a risk. It’s either going to be a total win or a complete and utter disappointment. As a viewer, you have to accept that the moment you hit the ‘play’ button, it’s going to be gamble when you sit through one for the first time. It’s as simple as throwing the dice and waiting to see if the bet you’ve made gives any sort of pay-off. In the case of Luciano Ercoli’s wonderful pair of 70’s giallo epics Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, they are both the equivalent of placing your last $5 at the blackjack table with no hope of winning, doubling down on an 11 and, surprisingly (and happily) collecting the jackpot. The jackpot here being a brand-new Blu-Ray three disc collection from Arrow Films that brings us both films on the format for the first time in an absolutely stunning, limited edition boxed set.
DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS (1971)
If you have ever laid eyes on a photograph of Spanish-born Italian fashion model and actress Susan Scott (born Nieves Navarro who would end up marrying director Luciano Ercoli in 1972) and have gotten to whole-heartedly contemplate the magnitude of her beauty and the charisma she beholds, then you know first-hand that there is, indeed, a God. Getting her start in the world of fashion and advertising, she soon made her way into the television industry until she got her start in Spaghetti Westerns and ultimately landing the role of sexy and sultry Nicole Rochard in Death Walks on High Heels, a role she is now known for among horror and giallo fans. The film opens up inside a speeding train and we are immediately introduced to a man wearing an eye-patch who is then killed by a masked, blue-eyed assailant whose intention is to get his hands on a trove of diamonds that were stolen by the mysterious man with the patch. Just like that, it’s a quick hello and goodbye. We are then taken to a police precinct where we catch our first glimpse of Susan Scott in the role of Nicole, who we are then told is the daughter of the man who was slain in the train. The police are badgering her as to the whereabouts of the diamonds the killer was after and inquiring to see if she has any sort of information her father may have left about them. We are then treated to a scene in a nightclub where Nicole works as a gorgeous exotic dancer. We get to watch her gyrate and tease the camera as she is dressed in a wig and naughty, revealing outfits. If you love films that give ode to the days of the swinging 60’s and early 70’s then you will love the twenty minutes here that showcase the kitschy décor, fashion and truly psychedelic indulgences that both those decades were all about.
The film really begins to take off when she returns home from work to her drunken boyfriend Michel (played by the gorgeous and hairy-chested Simon Andreu) who is running is mouth, and quickly trying her patience. The two exchange words about his drinking habit, they have a small row and he storms off, back to whence he came. After being gone for a few minutes, Nicole is suddenly accosted and assaulted by a masked man in her apartment who tries to kill her. She looks into his eyes and we see that it’s the same masked, blue-eyed man who killed her father in the train! He throws her down on the bed and cleverly uses a mechanism pressed into his throat that electronically scrambles his voice, something that foreshadows a plot device that will be used many years later in The New York Ripper, New Year’s Evil and the first Scream. It is here that the film gives a quick and wonderful nod to Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, released one year prior. Fearing for her life, she makes her way into the arms of Dr. Mathews (Frank Wolf, who was in Cold Eyes of Fear) who she met at the club she performs at and who she has developed a rapport with. Her decision to be with him stems from the first major red herring of the film in which Nicole, after being attacked, later on finds herself in Michel’s apartment. While in his bathroom she is horrified to come across a set of blue contact lenses wrapped in a towel! What betrayal! So he’s the one that both murdered her father and attempted to dispose of her in her own apartment? That can’t be! So, of course, Nicole takes up with Dr. Mathews and flies away with him to a lavish seaside villa and giving her that one thing that every girl loves: a shopping spree! I’m almost certain that the montage that follows is a clear attempt at a cinematic time capsule, gearing to preserve the fashion, feel and the experience of the early 70’s, allowing us to gaze at all the things that made the early part of that decade so undoubtedly fantastic. After an erotically-tinged lunch date of fried fish that is so wildly laughable that one needs to watch it to properly appreciate it, Nicole’s hubby is called away to London. Here is where the film takes another turn. We soon find out that Dr. Mathews is a doctor of ophthalmology and while working on finding a cure for a man’s blindness, we get the most ironic twist of all as our dear doc is murdered by an unseen villain in high heels (finally giving us the nice visual that matches the films fantastic title)…and the only witness to the murder…is blind! By this time, you are either on the edge of your seat aghast and waiting to see just where the hell this is all going, or ready to shut the television off and head to bed, exhausted from waiting to see just where the hell this is all going. Either way, the bodies begin to further pile up and just when you think you know exactly what is going to happen, the film grabs you by the sweater and shakes you up and down violently, completely disorienting you and leaving you wondering which way is up. Is there a pay-off to everything that’s happened and is there any sort of explanation to what appears to be unexplainable? Indeed, there is. Unfortunately, the film’s running time is what drags this into the ground, running at almost 110 minutes with the first half carrying on more than one would expect for a film such as this. Ercoli’s direction isn’t what you would call “solid” but he has a way of presenting the material, dipping it in a cheesy fondue of sleaze that borders on exploitation and giving us visuals that work. And who can resist the gorgeous and voluptuous Susan Scott dancing before the camera in an almost-birthday suit shaking what her momma gave her with jaunty and groovy jazz tunes playing in the background? Even I can’t. And believe me, that speaks volumes.
I sadly missed out on NoShame Film’s 2006 Luciano Ercoli’s Death Box Set that included both this film, Death Walks at Midnight and a compact disc containing songs off Stelvo Cirprian’s fantastic catalogue of soundtracks. I have to make a clear and unadulterated admission that Arrow Video is at the top of their game right now. Having released giallo gems such as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Blood and Black Lace, Five Dolls for an August Moon, and What Have You Done to Solange?, these guys are quickly cementing their reputation as a company who knows what they’re doing. High Heels here looks fantastic at 1080p and has been restored with a brand-new 2K transfer looking practically immaculate on my 55” 4K television. The film is presented in its original Italian version and it’s English-language version with the title card reading, “Death Stalks on High Heels”. Both versions come with a great introduction by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi.
From Spain With Love – A wonderful, twenty-four and a half minute on-camera interview with director Luciano Ercoli and actress Susan Scott reminiscing about how their careers got their start and how they got into the business. Recorded at their home in Spain back in 2012, it was an absolute treat to not only get to see Susan Scott on camera and what she looks like now, but it was fantastic to get to hear her speak in Spanish! Immediately, I ignored the subtitles and sat back to listen to her talk about how she decided she wanted a change and go into the movie business after so many years of modeling. And what’s more, I was about driven to tears when she revealed the origin of her stage name “Susan Scott” and why she agreed to have it changed from the name she was born with and already nationally known for. She is still so beautiful. I really wished that this interview had been much longer.
Master of Giallo – A very informative thirty-three minute on camera interview with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, the man responsible for a good number of influential giallo mainstays ranging from The Scorpion With Two Tails, Torso, The Case of the Bloody Iris to the near-perfect The Killer is Still Among Us. He talks about how the methods he uses to construct a thriller and how, as a writer, you must never “cheat”, his opinions on Robert De Niro and the screenplay for Once Upon a Time in America, and his role in penning Death Walks in High Heels.
Death Walks to the Beat – An in-depth and must-see twenty-six minute interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani filmed in 2015 in which he talks about his involvement with the soundtrack to Death Walks on High Heels and how he hired vocalist Nora Orlandi to lay down the dreamy vocals for the music he’d composed that is now closely associated with the film. He even plays some of the arrangements he’s well-known for on the piano in his home. If you love the music of this film, you will love this special feature.
Trailers – We get treated to one Italian-language and one English-language trailer (presented as “Death Stalks on High Heels“) for the film in all their psychedelic glory.
Audio Commentary – Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog magazine, gives a play-by-play commentary on the film. It’s actually very interesting if you can ignore his robotic and monotonous delivery.
DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT (1972)
The lovely and sexy Susan Scott stars (as she did in Death Walks on High Heels, along with most of the cast of that same film) in this trippy, psychedelic murder mystery as the beautiful and well-known fashion model Valentina who agrees to be a guinea pig to a new recreational drug called “HDS” to have its effects tested out for a scientific experiment. She is administered the drug – by a professor along with her journalist-companion Gio (the fantastic Simon Andreu, who also was not only in Death Walks in High Heels but would also star in the giallo classic The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion and also star in The Blood-Spattered Bride). She stipulates that she does not want to be photographed as the effects of the drug begin to manifest themselves and as soon as she is “under”, Gio pulls out the camera and immediately begins to snap shots of her, one right after the other, as she laughs almost absent-mindedly and frolics around her apartment in ecstasy. As she does, she looks out the window of her flat and is shocked by the vision of a young girl being murdered by a man in large dark glasses holding an armored glove with sharp spikes protruding from it. The girl is brutally and repeatedly stabbed on the side of the head and Valentina shrieks in horror as she watches the young girl bleed to death, immediately telling Gio what is going on before her eyes. He ignores what she is saying, concentrating on photographing her every move and reaction.
The next day, Valentina is fired from her job and finds out that it’s because the photographs taken of her under the influence of the drug have been printed as a sensationalist headline in the local rag that Gio works for and placed on its front page as she comes across them plastered all over the front of the local newsstand, deducing that it was all a set-up. She throws a diva-like tantrum and hurls a rock through an office window at Gio and gets herself sent downtown to the police station to get a slap on the wrist. With Gio quickly coming to her rescue (I mean, this is partially his fault, right?), Inspector Serpia becomes intrigued – and concerned – when Valentina’s description of what she saw happen the night she was given the HDS matches exactly the description of a real murder that took place in the apartment across hers…six months prior. Sitting – and arguing – in a restaurant with Gio after leaving the precinct embarrassed and mortified, Valentina sees the same man with the dark glasses she saw in the apartment within the crowd outside and goes after him. Here folks, is where the pandemonium – and the fun – begins. Several days later, her doorman appears with a message for her offering a modeling job and the address to where she should report. She later walks into what appears to be an empty apartment only to be accosted by the man in the dark glasses with his bristly glove! A short chase ensues, he destroys a locked door with his armored glove and she goes to the window only to see her boyfriend, Stefano (played by the gorgeous Pietro Martellanza who was in The French Sex Murders released that same year), in her apartment just across the way. After being unable to get his attention by means of traditional jumping and screaming, she cleverly breaks a mirror (that happens to be right where she is standing) and reflects a beam of sunlight into her apartment to signal her distress. He rapidly comes to her rescue and she frantically tells him what happened while the killer quietly slips out the front door unnoticed. The viewer suddenly begins to feel for poor Valentina as nobody, not even the police, believe her story about the man in glasses as they all think she’s acting off her still-fresh presentation on the cover of Gio’s rag and staging some sort of publicity stunt. To further salt the wound, everyone knows she was under the spell of the HDS when she saw the murder, so everyone assumes what she saw was induced by the effects of the drug.
The film takes a nosedive when Valentina is approached by the victim’s beautiful sister, Verushka, after having heard that Valentina witnessed the murder. We are told that the victim has been dead for six months and that there is no way that Valentina could have seen the murderer do what he did at the time she claims to have seen it. She presents Valentina with a photograph of her deceased sister and immediately, she claims that the picture is not of the girl who she saw being murdered. After being taken to an asylum on the outskirts of town, we are introduced a quiet and handsome man in the chapel who has already been charged with the horrible crime and who’s been a resident of the asylum…for six months. Things then get even more bizarre when Verushka runs off on Valentina, forcing her to hitch a ride in a van with a drifter who happens to be heading into Milan. Soon after on the road, she sees a hearse with a large floral tribute bearing the sentiment, “For you, Dolores”. When the scuzzball who offered the ride tries to get her into the back of the van – which conveniently is equipped with a mattress ready to go – she slaps the holy hell out of him and flees onto the road, flagging down police in the process. When Serpia talks with her at the station later, he shows her a photograph of the woman who was murdered six months prior whom Valentina does recognize. But, a newspaper folded under her photo reveals another photo, but of the girl Valentina actually saw murdered! One who committed suicide by train…and her name was Dolores! See where this is going now?
This one is my favorite of the two films on the sole merit that in my opinion, it has the stronger – and more intricate – story and it shaves off a good amount of the sleaze that Death Walks on High Heels relied on to tell its tale. Ercoli’s direction here is fantastic and the soundtrack makes the film all the much more entertaining. With that said, the pacing in this film is much more on-point and consistent, leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat trying to decipher all the clues while attempting to fend off the red herrings at the same time. Be forewarned that the film’s final act will bombard you with so many particulars as everything comes to light that you may have to hit the rewind button (several times) just to get yourself up to speed as it’s very detailed and drawn out. Do we get to find out just who those two new characters (one who is down-right infuriating) who are introduced at the finale and what they have to do with the rest of the film as a whole? Absolutely. Are we told the truth as to what Valentina really saw that night? Not really. Does it all end up making sense? Somewhat. But for what it’s worth, the final scene goes on record for the most bizarre rooftop showdown you will ever witness on film. You will probably need a double-dose of Advil once the end credits roll when the film comes to a close and I wish I would have kept some nearby as it reveals and presents a lot of information to absorb in such a short amount of time. Still, with all of its superficial flaws, this one is (and remains) a giallo classic.
The film is presented in both its original Italian-language version and it’s English-language version, (presented here with the title card, “Cry Out in Terror“) with an accompanying introduction from screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. It looks just as good as its sister film, Death Walks on High Heels and sounds absolutely fantastic.
Death Walks at Midnight – The TV Version – The first special feature on this disc is the television edit of the film, presented in what looks like a VHS transfer (by proof of countless video burps and hiccups present from the beginning). The menu says the TV version “is notable for containing footage not present in the theatrical cut”. It contains between four to five minutes of footage, but upon viewing it for the first time, I didn’t really notice any major differences nor did anything peculiar or out of place immediately stand out. If anything, it may have been some additional dialogue toward the finale when the big reveal in Valentina’s apartment unravels. I searched countless reviews of this edition on-line and, sadly, couldn’t find anyone who gave any sort of hint on the actual details of the additional footage.
Crime Does Pay – An interesting on-camera interview with Ernesto Gastaldi that lasts about a half hour where he talks about how he became a screenwriter and how Death Walks at Midnight came to be.
Desperately Seeking Susan – A twenty-seven minute visual essay by Michael Mackenzie in which he talks about the giallo genre as a whole while chronicling all of the giallo films in which star Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro) and director Luciano Ercoli collaborated on during the seventies. It’s worth a listen.
Audio Commentary – Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog magazine, gives another commentary on the film and its place within the history of the giallo genre.
Arrow once again delivers. It’s a shame that this set is only limited to 3,000 copies which I’m sure will sell out quickly, rendering it out of print within a few short months. Thank you to everyone at Arrow who took the time and money to give fans this definitive release of these two giallo trendsetters. These are two of my all-time favorite giallo films and I’m thrilled that they’ve been presented with such care and much love. This is a set that every fan needs to get into their collection as both films will never look this good again. I cannot wait to see what giallo releases Arrow will have in the future and am grateful that these have been preserved for generations to come.