Death Smiles on a Murderer

Death Smiles on a Murderer (Italian: La morte ha sorriso all'assassino; English title sequence: Death Smiles at Murder)[2] is a 1973 Italian horror film directed by Joe D'Amato and starring Ewa Aulin, Klaus Kinski and Luciano Rossi.

Death Smiles on a Murderer
Italian film poster
Directed byJoe D'Amato
Produced byFranco Gaudenzi[1]
Screenplay by
  • Joe D'Amato
  • Romano Scandariato
  • Claudio Bernabei[1]
Story byJoe D'Amato[1]
Music byBerto Pisano[1]
CinematographyJoe D'Amato[1]
Edited by
  • Piera Bruni
  • Gianfranco Simoncelli[1]
Dany Film[1]
Distributed byFlorida Cinematografica
Release date
  • 11 July 1973 (1973-07-11) (Italy)
Running time
92 minutes[1]
Budget150 million lire
Box office70.990 million lire (Italy)


1906. In a crypt-like room, hunchbacked Franz von Holstein mourns over the body of Greta, his young sister and only love. A first flashback shows him sexually assaulting her, after which she expresses her wish to leave this cursed place with him, to live and to be among people. In a second flashback, she teases him into chasing her when she stumbles upon Doctor Herbert von Ravensbrück; they get romantically involved while Franz watches from hiding.

1909. Walter von Ravensbrück (Herbert's son) and his wife Eva are being served tea by butler Simeon when a carriage driving by at high speed is overturned and the coachman fatally impaled. Inside the coach is Greta, unconscious. Inspector Dannick wants to question her, but Walter convinces him otherwise. They do not meet. Instead, Doctor Sturges is called to check on her. He hears no heartbeat and discovers her gold medallion carrying the inscription "Greta 1906" as well as mysterious symbols, which he recognises, perturbed.

Getrud, the Ravensbrücks' servant, having recognised Greta, is haunted in her room by Franz von Holstein, who repeatedly vanishes and reappears and cuts her neck open with a scalpel - a wound that bleeds but disappears.

Sturges discovers a scar on Greta's neck on the same spot. He inserts a needle into her right eyeball, causing neither damage nor pain and confirming that Greta is undead. For the coachman's death certificate, he opens the coffin to discover the corpse's rapid decomposition - an indication that he was undead at the time of the crash.[3] Sturges keeps both facts secret.

Gertrud packs her things, leaves, and is chased by Franz's apparition along a path at whose end she is approached by an unseen assailant, who - despite her assertion that she has not told anyone and is leaving for good - kills her with a point blank shotgun blast to her face.

After a ball, Greta, the von Ravensbrücks and their guests go on a pheasant hunt with shotguns. Meanwhile, Doctor Sturges is working in his underground laboratory. The medallion's symbols contain a formula for the creation of life. Just as Sturges succeeds in bringing one of his corpses to life, he is strangled by an unseen assailant, who also kills the corpse and the doctor's deaf mute lab assistant, bashing his head in.

Walter and Eva both gradually fall in love with Greta. Spying on a love meeting between Walter and Greta, Eva's jealousy escalates. In Walter's absence, she lures Greta into the villa's cellar, where she declares her hate and walls her up alive. She lies to Walter about an unexpected departure of Greta's - a scene concluding with a zoom on the eyes of a dark cat. Dannick investigates Greta's disappearance, remaining clueless.

A month later, a masquerade ball is held at the villa. In a party game, Eva has to guess the identities of the masked guests. A woman in red whose name she cannot guess puts aside her creepily deformed mask, revealing herself as Greta and vanishing. In disbelief, Eva checks for the body and removes the wall's bricks with an axe, when the dark cat jumps through the opening at her face and runs up the stairs, where Greta appears, smiling. Eva follows her, and Greta's face suddenly turns into that of a rotten corpse. She chases Eva up into the attic, from where she falls to her death, screaming. Her fractured body is discovered by Walter and the guests in front of the entrance.

Herbert, Walter's father, returns for Eva's funeral. During the ceremony, he catches a glimpse of Greta standing in the distance, which causes him to have a flashback to 1906: Greta dies in childbirth and Franz points his finger at him in accusation.

After Eva's funeral, Herbert stays behind to visit Greta's grave, where he looks at her photograph. Greta comes up from behind and reminds him of their baby's prenatal death. When she asks for a kiss, her face again suddenly turns rotten. Herbert, terrified, attempts to escape. He seeks refuge inside a crypt, whose door suddenly shuts tight, trapping him. Eva's freshly laid corpse slowly gets up and walks towards him. Only a wide shot of the cemetery is shown as Herbert's drawn-out cry is heard from inside.

Walter lies in his bed, falling asleep. The dark cat enters his room, and Walter suddenly notices Greta sitting near his bedside. As she crawls into bed and starts kissing him, her face turns rotten, and Walter lets out a drawn-out cry of terror.

In the family granary, Greta lures Simeon out of his hiding place, acknowledging that he did not betray her identity and promising him anything he could wish for: money, or better even, love. She then kills him by slashing his face to shreds with a straight razor. As the police are covering up Simeon's body, Walter's body is discovered nailed to a wall and clutching Greta's medallion.

Inspector Dannick visits Professor Kempte about the medallion's symbols, who explains that the Incans believed they contained a formula which could bring their king back to life. Franz von Holstein, a brilliant former student of his, had worked on deciphering it, but had given up after his sister's death. Kempte gives Dannick Franz's address.

In a final flashback to 1906 and to the room in which the film started, now brightly lit, Franz walks up to Greta, who is dressed in white and holding a bouquet of white flowers. He tells her triumphantly that he brought her back to life and that she is his now, puts the medallion inscribed with the year of her "new creation" around her neck and promises her they will leave and start a new life together. As "proof of love", Greta throws the white flowers at his face. Then she turns into the dark cat in mid-air, which repeatedly assaults and tears up Franz's face, gouges his eyes out and finally kills him. Greta, whose dress has magically turned red, giggles and leaves with a smile. Dannick, now entering this room in 1909, discovers Franz's corpse.

At the cemetery, Dannick looks at Greta's photograph on her empty grave, wondering whether he will ever solve the mystery about this woman who he has never even seen. When he returns home, the figure he previously addressed as his wife and which hitherto has been sitting with her back to the viewer turns around. It is an aged Greta smiling at Dannick, who reacts to seeing her, perhaps recognising her face as Greta's.


Source: [1]

  • Ewa Aulin as Greta von Holstein
  • Klaus Kinski as Dr. Sturges
  • Angela Bo as Eva von Ravensbrück
  • Sergio Doria as Walter von Ravensbrück
  • Attilio Dottesio as Inspector Dannick
  • Marco Mariani as Simeon, the butler
  • Luciano Rossi as Franz, Greta's Brother
  • Giacomo Rossi-Stuart as Dr. Herbert[4] von Ravensbrück, Walter's Father
  • Fernando Cerulli as Professor Kempte (as Franco Cerulli)

Credited, but not in the picture:[5]

  • Carla Mancini


  • Evelyn Melcherich as Gertrud, the Maid
  • Pietro Torrisi as Dr. Sturges' Assistant
  • Tony Askin as Reanimated Corpse
  • Giorgio Dolfin as Maier
  • Oscar Sciamanna as Party Guest


Death Smiles on a Murderer was produced by Franco Gaudenzi, whom D'Amato had met through production manager Oscar Santaniello.[1] Their first collaboration led to D'Amato directing Un Bounty Killer a Trinità, one of the several films directed by D'Amato with someone else taking credit.[1] This was the first film D'Amato directed himself in which he used his real name in the credits: Aristide Massaccesi.[1] He said in an interview, he signed his own name to the film because "I felt encouraged by the budget....and by the presence of two important actors like Ewa Aulin and Klaus Kinski, who were appearing at the time in several Italian films.....Kinski, in spite of everything, is an excellent professional actor."[6]

The film credits the script to D'Amato, Romano Scandariato and Claudio Bernabei; the latter was said to just be a typist by Scandariato.[7] The story is credited to D'Amato, which Scandariato said was "more or less one page."[7] Scandariato stated the film was originally written with more suspense and as more of a giallo, but this was changed out of necessity.[8] D'Amato later claimed he wrote the screenplay entirely on his own, saying in an interview "I'm afraid it's a very imperfect film.....but this is due to the fact that I wrote the script on my own. When you don't work with someone's much harder to come up with a good product.....and I really was inexperienced as far as screenwriting goes"[6] The script takes several elements from works of Gothic fiction. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla similarly contains a carriage accident that introduces the female character to the household, and there is also a cat connection in that, similarly to Carmilla in Laura's nightmares, Greta either shapeshifts into or controls a cat.[3] In Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Black Cat, a woman is walled in alive and a cat is found inside upon reopening, just like Greta is walled in by Eva and a cat emerges when Eva tears down the wall to check.[7] In another one of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, The Masque of the Red Death, the Red Death enters Prospero's masquerade ball in a blood-spattered robe and a mask resembling that of the corpses that succumbed to the plague, Greta enters the masked ball of the von Ravensbrücks clad in red and wearing a corpse-like mask.[7]

The film was given a low budget of 150 million Italian lire.[8]. Death Smiles on a Murderer was shot between November and December 1972 with a working title of 7 strani cadaveri (lit.Seven Strange Corpses).[1] Some scenes were not in the script and were improvised on set.[8] These include a scene in which Luciano Rossi is attacked by a cat, which D'Amato achieved by throwing the cat against Rossi's face.[8]


Death Smiles on a Murderer was released in Italy on 11 July 1973.[1] Film historian Roberto Curti referred to this box office as "scarce business" noting its unimportant distributor Florida Cinematografica.[1][9] In Italy, the film grossed a total of 70,990,000 Italian lire.[1] It was released in the United States as Death Smiles on a Murderer and Death Smiles at Murder.[1]

A blu-ray of the film was released on 21 May 2018 by Arrow Video in a "2k restoration from the original camera negative", containing English and Italian audio, a commentary track by film historian Tim Lucas and the original English and Italian trailers.[10]


In Matthew Edwards' book on Klaus Kinski published in 2016, the film, called "trippy, but fascinating", is compared to Jess Franco's Venus in Furs in that its "existential, haunting and dreamlike qualities do nothing to detract from the enjoyment of what takes place on screen".[11]



  1. Curti 2017, p. 90.
  2. Paul 2005, p. 204.
  3. Boylan 2012, p. 85.
  4. "La morte ha sorriso all'assassino". Cinematografo. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  5. Tim Lucas (Audio commentator) (21 May 2018). Death Smiles on a Murderer (blu-ray). Arrow Video.
  6. Palmerini & Gaetrano 1996, p. 77.
  7. Curti 2017, p. 91.
  8. Curti 2017, p. 92.
  9. Curti 2017, p. 93.
  10. "Death Smiles on a Murderer Blu-ray". Arrow Films. Retrieved 18 August 2018.
  11. Edwards, p. 260.


  • Boylan, Andrew M. (2012). The Media Vampire. A study of vampires in fictional media. p. 85.
  • Curti, Roberto (2017). Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1970-1979. McFarland. ISBN 1476629609.
  • Palmerini, Luca M.; Gaetano, Mistretta (1996). Spaghetti Nightmares. Fantasma Books. p. 77. ISBN 0963498274.
  • Edwards, Matthew. Klaus Kinski, Beast of Cinema. Critical Essays and Fellow Filmmaker Interviews. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-9897-0.
  • Paul, Louis (2005). Italian Horror Film Directors. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-8749-3.
  • Shipka, Danny (2011). Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960–1980. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-4888-3.
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