8 April 2016

DVD Review - Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli Box Set (2016)

The latest from cult powerhouse Arrow films is Death Walks Twice, a DVD and Blu-Ray giallo double-bill of Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972). These two rare films are an enjoyable addition to the current Arrow selection, helping to prove that the genre wasn’t solely curated by its most famous patrons. With so many features being produced in a relatively short period of time (the majority were produced between 1970-75), many of them were lost; slipping through the cracks whilst the more memorable, genre-defining, features (like Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) provided the standard and stereotype of what a giallo film could be.

In Death Walks in High Heels, Ercoli’s wife, the gorgeous Nieves Navarro (here credited as Susan Scott) plays a strip-tease performer who flees to England with an admirer after getting caught up in the aftermath of a jewel heist perpetrated by her father. There’s a great flare to High Heels that edges more into camp than Death Walks at Midnight does, Ercoli manages to put Navarro into evocative dance numbers without seeming as lewd or exploitative as many of his contemporaries. Whether striding around a white set in multi-coloured feather-boas or shaking her stuff in a purple room adorned with golden chains, Navarro never feels as objectified as many giallo femmes can. In those particular scenes, production designer Antonio Negri and set decorator Juan Alberto Soler deserve credit, alongside Navarro who channels the headstrong ballsyness of Florinda Balkan in Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

Ercoli’s giallo films, including his debut Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, are enjoyably female-centric, considering the time and genre. Death Walks Twice is, if anything, a box-set engineered to reveal the dangerous world of oppressive male sexuality. Here men are snivelling sex-fiends, frequently put in their place by Nevarro’s no-bullshit characters. Nevarro flings herself full-pelt into rolls which makes her one of the most enjoyable giallo regulars in all her stone flinging, nut-busting, potty-mouthed perfection.

In Midnight, Navarro is given an experimental drug, by a manipulative journalist, which causes her to hallucinate the graphic murder of a young woman by a man with a spiked gauntlet. The ensuing notoriety she gains from the published article on her experience automatically sets everyone against her. Like Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin or Seven Notes in Black, Death Walks at Midnight subjects its heroine to a vision she then misinterprets. Yet both films become an investigative farce where the central character is continually discredited until its almost too late, proving Ercoli is significantly more sympathetic towards his female characters than many of his contemporaries.

After flirting with stereotypical giallo sequences in Rome, Death Walks in High Heels jumps across the channel and plays out the rest of its Agatha Christie-esque whodunit in an English seaside town. Here, the film purposefully steps out of its giallo trappings for a less stylish, yet more intriguing mystery. Gastaldi and his co-writers deserve a good amount of credit for successfully constructing a genuine mystery that does not rely on unreliable narrators’ forgotten information. Unfortunately when the film shifts locale, it loses some of its romanticism, suddenly becoming a less creative thriller, characterised by gossiping locals, pervy old Englishmen, and meetings about boats. Carlo Gentili’s likeable sleuth and comic timing become a major crutch for the film when it loses some of its visual flare.

Technically, Death Walks on High Heels is the more accomplished of the two films. Cinematographer Fernando Aribas has a superb eye for framing, revealing much in the film with simple shapes and angles. An early shot has Nevarro relaxing in her apartment captured in the web of a glass window, another shows a brutalised corpse splayed on a bed through a keyhole, the silhouette of the keyhole a short hand for how “key” this particular corpse is to the mystery. Visual metaphors might be skimpy in Death Walks at Midnight, but tension is arguably better captured after the first graphic murder sets up the film’s threat as near-jubilant in his destruction of female beauty. Its also one of the few schlocky moments Ercoli indulges in, claustrophobically douising the camera in red whilst the music spikes with each thrust of the gauntlet. Though Death Walks at Midnight is definitely the more savage of the two films, High Heels arguably boasts the best murders of the two, flaunting at least one memorably visceral knife-attack in its last act.

Overall Death Walks in High Heels is a solid giallo film with a good story and solid likeable performances from both Nevarro and Frank Wolff. The ending is pitch-perfect thriller material that feels way more complete than Death Walks at Midnight’s bombastic roof-top action sequence; commenting rather progressively on Giallo’s treatment of cross-dressers whilst pulling off a last-minute twist that is both entertaining and genuinely surprising.

Script writer Ernesto Gastaldi introduces both films and believes they adhere to the structure of a classic giallo more than, say, Argento’s Deep Red or Suspiria. Gastaldi cites Argento’s dream-like approach and interests in the development of horror (an “emotional” type of film) as contradictory to the formulaic and intellectual origins of the Giallo thriller. And he’s right, the vast majority of giallo films are straight thrillers populated with red herrings and razors. Ercoli’s films might lack the audacious styles of Argento or genre-founder Mario Bava, even the shameless exploitation of Fulci, but they are still significantly more entertaining than many of their contemporaries. Together these two films are a welcome break from the dull exploitative thrillers of underdog giallo, instead impressing with progressive ideas, superb casting, solid writing, and the charming star power of Nieves Navarro.

Scott Clark

Death Walks On High Heels | ★★★★
Giallo | Italy, 1971 |18 | Dir. Luciano Ercoli | Nieves Navarro, Frank Wolff, Simon Andreu, Carlo Gentili

Death Walks at Midnight | ★★★
Giallo | Italy, 1971 |18 | Dir. Luciano Ercoli | Nieves Navarro, Simon Andreu, Pietro Martellanza

Devil Walks Twice Box Set | 18 | Arrow Video | out Now | Buy:Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli Dual Format Limited Edition Boxset [DVD]

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