Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli Dual Format Limited Edition Boxset (film review).

February 26, 2017 | By | Reply More

‘Death Walks Twice’ is a remastered special edition from Arrow Films that collects together a matched pair of classic giallo films, ‘Death Walks On High Heels’ (1971) and ‘Death Walks At Midnight’ (1972). For those who don’t know, the ‘giallo’ is a particular sub-genre of European film. The Italian word simply means ‘thriller’ but when a film is referred to as a ‘giallo’ in English-speaking circles, it usually means that it mixes horror and eroticism in with the crime story. These two films by Italian director Luciano Ercoli obey some giallo conventions whilst turning others on their heads. Was it worth pulling them out of the back catalogue?

Beyond the similarity in their titles and the fact that they are both gialli, the two films are not thematically linked at all, featuring different characters and plots. However, they do share the same core creative team, including director Luciano Ercoli, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and leading actors Nieves Navarro (credited as Susan Scott) and Simon Andreu. This inevitably means that, despite the different storylines, the two films have a lot in common.

‘Death Walks On High Heels’ opens with a dramatic murder aboard a train, carried out by a masked man with piercing blue eyes. We soon find out that his victim was the father of Parisian exotic dancer Nicole Rochard (Navarro/Scott). He was a jewel thief, returning from a successful job and the Parisian Police, while telling Nicole of her father’s death a few days later, also explain that they suspect he was murdered for the diamonds he had just stolen. However, it appears that he’d already hidden them somewhere. The cops think he may have told his daughter where but she professes total ignorance, insisting that she has been estranged from her father for several years. When the Police suggest that the killer might come for her next, just in case she knows where the loot is, she laughs in their faces and walks out.

That night, however, soon after Nicole gets home from performing at two different strip clubs, the masked man breaks into her apartment, threatens her with a knife and gives her twenty-four hours to find out where the stolen diamonds have been hidden otherwise he will cut her to ribbons! After he leaves, Nicole seeks out her unreliable boyfriend Michel (Andreu) but his response to her tale is disbelief, thinking that she’s been smoking something.

Panicking and suddenly suspicious of Michel’s behaviour, Nicole rushes off to find Dr. Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), a charming and polite middle-aged British ophthalmologist who was at both her shows the previous evening and who expressed great admiration for her. She finds him at his hotel, just as he’s about to fly back to London. Nicole pleads with Matthews to take her with him, seeing it as a way to escape the clutches of the murderer and Matthews, besotted as he is, agrees immediately. Has Nicole evaded a grisly fate or might her decision to leave the country in the company of a man she’s only just met come back to haunt her?

‘Death Walks On High Heels’ is dramatic, exciting and a lot of fun, even if it does suffer from a massive structural flaw. Much of the energy in the film comes directly from Navarro’s terrific performance as Nicole. Unlike the typical giallo, where the female characters are largely passive non-entities whose sole purpose is to be exploited sexually or murdered horribly, Navarro plays a stripper who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to express herself. Throughout the film, she refuses to defer to the police, her boyfriend Michel or Dr. Matthews and she is not backwards in using her sexual power to get Matthews to do what she wants. Given how central Navarro’s performance is to the power of the film’s first half, it is not surprising that when the plot removes her character from the screen for most of the second half, the result is a tremendous loss of pace and direction. Even so, Ercoli manages to pull things back at the last minute with an exciting climax which rounds the film out nicely.

Buoyed by the success of ‘Death Walks On High Heels’, Ercoli decided to follow it up quickly with a loose sequel, reuniting the undoubted stars of the previous film, Navarro and Andreu. ‘Death Walks At Midnight’ is set in the world of high fashion and low journalism in early 1970s Milan. Valentina (Scott/Navarro) is a beautiful fashion model who has been persuaded by good-looking journalist Giovanni Baldi (Andreu) to help him research a new psychoactive drug called HDS that has just entered the market. The idea is that she takes the drug and he records her response to it in photos and prose to feature in the downmarket tabloid magazine he writes for. Valentina doesn’t want to be identified, as a reputation for experimenting with drugs could ruin her modelling career, so Gio gives her an eye mask to wear for the photos. However, as soon as the drug has taken effect, Gio removes the mask, as his magazine article will be worth much more if readers know the identity of his famous guinea pig! At first Val just gets loud and giggly but her mood quickly changes when she sees a clear vision of a brunette being brutally murdered by a man with huge glasses who stabs her repeatedly in the face with a medieval spiked metal glove! Val collapses in tears, while Gio eagerly records her emotional outburst for his article.

The next day, when a fully recovered Val goes to work, she is summarily fired by the editor of her fashion magazine. She finds out why a few minutes later as she walks past a newsstand outside the magazine’s offices. Gio has run the story of her drug-fuelled vision of a horrific slaying as an exclusive in his sleazy magazine, complete with an unmasked photo of Val on the front cover! Her reputation in tatters, Val goes round to Gio’s offices and tears a strip off him, eventually getting arrested for throwing a rock through his office window after she’s been escorted from the building for screaming at him.

Eager for a new job, when Val gets an anonymous note through her door the following day, inviting her for an interview for a modelling role, she goes to the address given. The venue is a large unfurnished flat but no-one’s there. Deciding it’s a wind-up, Val is about to leave when she sees, coming out of the lift, the murderer from her drug-fuelled vision! Although she manages to escape him, over the succeeding days she starts to see him everywhere she goes. Unsurprisingly, no-one she tells will believe her. After all, the man was a figment of her drug-crazed imagination, wasn’t he? However, when it turns out that a woman was stabbed to death six months earlier in the same flat she went to for her abortive job interview, Val becomes convinced that the man is very real indeed. Can she get to the bottom of this mystery before the bespectacled stranger adds her to his list of victims?

Once again, Navarro is the undoubted star of the show. Valentina is a self-confident character who won’t let anyone tell her what to do. One of the great moments in the film, for me, was when Val cadges a lift with a passing van driver who gets the wrong idea, parks up on some waste ground and tries to assault her. Contrary to the normal giallo convention of the passive female, Val kicks her attacker in the balls and then casually wanders off. Having said all of that, much of the plot of ‘Death Walks At Midnight’ defies rational analysis. Most obviously, we never have any explanation for how taking a psychoactive drug enabled Val to ‘see’ a murder that did take place but which she didn’t actually witness. Nonetheless, if you put such niceties out of your mind, this is an exciting, stylish and, above all, fun piece of 1970s European cinema.

Looking at both films as a package, they provide a strong showcase for Gastaldi’s writing skills and Ercoli’s ability as a director of low-budget genre films. Masterpieces they are not but as long as you are prepared for a certain amount of melodrama in both writing and direction, you’ll have fun. Although they are clearly of their time, I didn’t at any point feel like I was watching museum pieces of no contemporary value. They both have great style and energy and the combination of strong lead actors, good writing and sound direction makes for a couple of highly enjoyable pieces of cinema. I’d also like to praise Arrow Films for the quality of the remastering, which is excellent throughout.

Alongside the two films, the package includes a host of extras, including six special features alongside the first film, five with the second film and a 60 page booklet containing lots of stills from both movies and three newly-commissioned essays about the giallo genre in general and the two ‘Death Walks’ films in particular.

The special features are almost all new, and include fascinating and detailed interviews with screenwriter Gastaldi, with husband and wife team Ercoli and Navarro (who remained married from 1971 until Ercoli’s death in 2015) and with Stelvio Cipriani, who composed the score for ‘Death Walks On High Heels’. There are also informative audio commentaries on each film from Tim Lucas, the editor of ‘Video Watchdog’ and an excellent visual essay by Michael Mackenzie on the history of female characters in the giallo film, contrasting the generally passive victim roles given to the women in most such movies with the strong and active characters that Nieves Navarro plays in both the ‘Death Walks’ films. The booklet and the special features provide genuine insights into these two films and their genre, which hugely increased my enjoyment of the overall package.

If you’re already familiar with Luciano Ercoli’s work in general or the ‘Death Walks’ films in particular then you’d be well advised to get this package, which allies excellent remasterings of both films to a host of informative special features. Even if you’ve never heard of Ercoli or his films before, if you like European genre films from the 1970s then I think you’ll enjoy the mix of suspense, style and a genre-defying strong female lead in each of these movies.

Patrick Mahon

February 2017

(pub: Arrow Films,2016. 2 discs Blu-ray/DVD. 107 and 102 minutes. Rating: 18. Price: £36.50 (UK), $45.99 (US). Cat: FCD 1217B/1218B)

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Category: Films, Horror

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