Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (1971/1972) – By Roger Carpenter

 

Arrow Video has released an exciting box set that includes two films by director/producer Luciano Ercoli. The aptly-titled “Death Walks Twice” includes Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972).

A longtime producer of Italian genre fare–most notably he produced a couple of “Ringo” pictures–Ercoli was forced into directing due to budgetary concerns. His directing debut, in 1970, is probably his best-known film, the luridly titled Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. This was quickly followed by the first film in this set, Death Walks on High Heels.

Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (here acting under the name of Susan Scott) stars as Nicole Rochard, a haughty, confident stripper embroiled in a tempestuous love affair with boyfriend Michel Aumont (Simon Andreu). They are called to the police commissioner’s office when Nicole’s father—suspected of stealing a large number of diamonds—is found mysteriously murdered on a train. The police suspect Nicole knows the whereabouts of the diamonds but she claims she knows nothing. Later that evening, a masked stranger with exceptional blue eyes breaks into her apartment and threatens her if she doesn’t divulge the location of the diamonds. Again, she insists she knows nothing of the diamonds so her attacker leaves her to ponder her future fate if she doesn’t give up the jewels. Quite by accident, she discovers some blue contact lenses hidden in her medicine cabinet. Suspecting her boyfriend is actually her attacker, she meets one of her devoted fans and convinces him to take her back to London when he leaves. Already smitten with the gorgeous young stripper, Dr. Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff) needs very little convincing. The two embark on a heated love affair, with Dr. Matthews and Nicole holing up in a seaside English villa.

Soon enough, though, the attacker seemingly tracks the couple down, attacking and killing several people in an effort to recover the diamonds. Nicole’s ex-lover, Michel, also manages to track the two down, as does the good doctor’s jealous wife. Throw in a grizzled fish-monger, a crusty sea captain, and an awkward, one-armed handyman, and soon there are so many suspects the viewer won’t know what to think.

As previously mentioned, Ercoli preferred to be off-set and directing came to him out of necessity. Video Watchdog Tim Lucas, who has a nice audio commentary on the film, mentions this fact and likens Ercoli’s direction as workmanlike, someone concerned with ensuring every dollar is spent wisely and that production value is high as compared to a Mario Bava or a Dario Argento who were craftsmen and planned each exquisite shot of their films. Lucas compares Ercoli to a carpenter instead of a craftsman. I must agree with this assessment. Death Walks on High Heels is a bit slow and overly long, at a little under two hours, and isn’t nearly as flashy as other gialli of the period.

That being said, there is still much to like about the film. Ercoli populates his film with fun, quirky characters and a plot (courtesy of prolific genre screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi) that is refreshingly absent of a sexual pervert with a “mommy” complex as the killer. But never fear. There is still plenty of sexual innuendo and action occurring on screen. But these people are all motivated by greed instead of some psychosexual trauma from the past.

Even after Hitchcock shocked the world by killing his heroine in the first third of Psycho, few filmmakers were brave enough to try it themselves. However, Ercoli not only takes out his heroine but one-ups The Master by bringing her back to tell a good portion of the story in flashback and from various characters’ perspectives. Done to death at this point, in 1971 the depiction of varying perspectives was relatively new and it allowed the director the freedom to change what the audience thought as the film takes place. The result is a film that keeps you guessing as to the killer’s identity up until the end.

While the story concerns a stripper engaged in a torrid love affair, there isn’t as much sex or nudity as one might imagine. Ercoli is content to use long shots and innuendo to get these ideas across. Likewise, the violence isn’t nearly as strong as in other gialli, save one particularly vicious murder seen in bloody, blade-gashing close-up. However, Ercoli does show a flair for comedy, both subtle as well as blunt. Witness one unfortunate cop getting puked on by a drunken Michel and forced to stand guard over a crime scene through it all. There is also a fun sequence that shows the police inspector being constantly interrupted while trying to drink his coffee. Many viewers may overlook this sequence but it shows that Ercoli could be a craftsman, too.

So, while not the strongest entry in the gialli genre, Ercoli does a solid job creating a film with plenty of red herrings, plot twists, and surprises even if the film doesn’t exhibit the usual flair of a typical giallo.

Extra features include an excellent Tim Lucas commentary that I felt was more entertaining than the film, an introduction to the film by screenwriting legend Ernesto Gastaldi, an archive interview with Nieves Navarro and Luciano Ercoli, and an interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani. There is also an extended interview with Gastaldi which is terrible. Gastaldi is supposed to be speaking about the characteristics of a good giallo but often goes off-topic, including a very long rant about the problems with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. This particular feature probably shouldn’t have been used at all. The original English and Italian trailers round out the features for this disc.

Death Walks at Midnight

A year almost to the day after Death Walks in High Heels was release, the same team (and the same actors as well), released Death Walks at Midnight. Ercoli again directed the film based upon Gastaldi’s script. Nieves Navarro again stars as the protagonist, Valentina, a model who collaborates with a photographer (Simon Andreu as Gio) to shoot an expose of Valentina while tripping on a new, LSD-type of drug. While she is hallucinating, she presses her face to her window and witnesses a bloody murder. But did she really see the killing or was it simply a hallucination? Valentina claims the murder was real, but when she goes to investigate the apartment across from hers, it is vacant—because of an eerily similar murder that happened six months earlier!

As Valentina tries to unravel this mystery, she is confronted by a slew of quirky characters like the mysterious man that is stalking her and wants to warn her of impending danger; an equally mysterious doctor who uses arm braces to walk and heads an asylum that supposedly holds the killer; the doctor’s wife, who may or may not be a patient in the asylum; Gio, the photographer who started this whole mess in the first place; Stefano, Valentina’s on-again, off-again lover; and two seedy characters that show up near the end of the film.

Death Walks at Midnight has many similarities to Ercoli’s first “Death Walks” film. With a producer-first mentality, Ercoli uses actual locations and is masterful at milking production value out of these locations. While not as flashy or creative as a studio set, Ercoli nonetheless is able to create some interesting setpieces. Navarro, as Valentina, is again a strong, ultra-confident woman who can hold her own with anyone and isn’t scared by men. And the story, as written by genre-veteran Ernesto Gastaldi, is generally plausible. That isn’t to say there aren’t a couple of leaps the viewer will need to make in order to follow the plot, but generally speaking, the plot is more realistic than many gialli, which sometimes emphasize style over substance.

But the lack of style is also one of the pitfalls of the film. At around an hour and 45 minutes, and with several lengthy dialogue scenes, the film suffers for its lack of style and flash. And with only two murders, the film is also short on action, though both murders are quite bloody and gruesome. And while you won’t guess who the killer is until the reveal, by that time, you may find your mind wandering to other topics, like how beautiful Nieves Navarro is and why she wasn’t filmed in various states of undress as occurred in the first “Death Walks” film (my guess is that Ercoli didn’t want his wife to appear nude in the film).

In fact, when one looks at all the characteristics of a solid giallo, one gets the sense that Ercoli was actually moving away from that genre and towards a police procedural.

Death Walks at Midnight includes another excellent audio commentary by Tim Lucas as well as a much better interview with Gastaldi about the film. There is also a loving tribute and video essay about real-life husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Navarro and Ercoli, by Michael Mackenzie and a short introduction to the film by Gastaldi. Perhaps most interesting to gialli completists is the inclusion of a television version (in Italian with English subtitles) of the film, including several shots that were not a part of the theatrical version. While both theatrical films look and sound terrific with their 2K restorations from the original camera negatives, this television version did not undergo any restoration process and looks quite aged. However, for those who want every single second of film, it’s a nice surprise.

Overall, Death Walks Twice is a very nice package with superior presentation of two fairly average gialli films, supplemented with an excellent set of special features. The set can be found on Amazon or you can go directly to Arrow Film’s website at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa