Italian fashion model Valentina (Nieves Navarro) agrees to trial a hallucinogenic drug as part of an experiment for a magazine article but when doing so, accidentally rouses the repressed memory of a killing she once witnessed. After reading the published piece, the murderer in question decides to track Valentina down and kill her before she uncovers his true identity.
Director Luciano Ercoli reunites with writer Ernesto Gastaldi and actress Nieves Navarro (AKA Susan Scott) for this wavering, spiritual sequel to Death Walks on High Heels. An intriguing set-up unravels efficiently with familiar sub-genre tropes, but while the protagonists and central concept are unique when compared to its predecessor, they are less so in the context of gialli per se. Sub-genre archetypes such as; the fiery femme fatale, cranky journalist, glove wearing killer and ham-fisted detective, all dot the plot with kooky physiognomies, but as the story progresses, DWAM shudders under the weight of its superfluous characters. Complicated subplots knot, confound then gradually unfold into bedlam, leaving the viewer bamboozled but mostly entertained.
Ernesto Gastaldi’s screenplay, which is based on a story by Sergio Corbucci, collapses into colourful incoherence but is bolstered by some frenetic action, a lively jazz score by Gianni Ferrio (whose “One silver dollar” track from Un Dollaro Bucato was used by Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds) and a captivating antagonist in the form of a voluminous headed, mac wearing maniac who materialises in Valentina’s vision. Despite resembling the lovechild of Paul Reubens and Jackie Mason, our chief zealot’s striking design is an improvement on DWOHH’s balaclava bound, contact wearing crime scamp who was more driven by material motives than madness or revenge. With flamboyant hair/ fashion faux pas and Jackie Onassis style sunglasses, the killer’s spiked, iron gauntlet is an inspired distraction from the lack of a decent story. Especially when his weapon of choice is adorned and repetitively deployed with wanton, colossal might, in a couple of frenetic lobe-jabbing attack scenes. The engaging Simon Andréu (from Death Walks on High Heels) also returns, this time in the role of Valentina’s boyfriend/ wily journalist Gio Baldi, while Navarro is equally enthralling as the drugged and feverish starlet.
The excellently executed murder mystery elements which worked wonders within the gialli milieu in DWOHH, are this time lost amongst the character/ sub-plot camaraderie. Instead DWAM needlessly deliberates over futile bit players by exploring Valencia’s relationships with a wide variety of men. As a result, the story threatens to drift into a type of later Woody Allen-like character drama before riveting kill scenes unfold and chase sequences extricate from the violent altercations and plot knots. Valentina’s tenuous/ promiscuous relationships with Gio, her neighbour and a stranger in a red cravat/ beguiling beard, who hovers on the outskirts in attempt to establish contact, all seem to serve an ambiguous function but one that’s too convoluted to grasp amongst the entwining narrative strands.
Death Walks at Midnight was shot in Milan and Barcelona and is infused with a sweltering Mediterranean air that was previously missing from its Paris and London set predecessor. DWAM is both oddly alluring but for the most part bewildering and confuses even more when the sister of the murder victim enters the skirmish and starts making unjust accusations. The police link the killing to incidents in Hamburg, an inmate in a mental asylum and the operations of an international drug cartel before a cackling clown shows up in the latter half to cause further disarray (as if the hallucinatory meltdown wasn’t maddening enough). By the last act, logic is almost totally abolished and the urge to cerebrally surrender overcomes. A breath-taking roof-top, chase/ fight sequence serves as a visually stimulating finale and nearly recompenses for the puzzling midway plot muddle but DWAM is ultimately just as perplexing as it is invigorating, despite being a mostly compelling companion piece.
A “TV version” of Death Walks at Midnight in included on the disc and contains an extra five minutes of footage cut from the main, HD polished theatrical cut. It’s an excellent addition but the damaged video-tape transfer is an eye-ache when compared to the re-mastered version, despite boasting a grimy “of the time”, crispy VHS vibe. Also included is Crime Does Pay: a fascinating interview with renowned crime film screen-writer Ernesto Gastaldi who looks back on his career, deliberates on his preference for writing over directing and reminisces on working with his wife; actress Mara Maryl (they only ever worked together on each other’s productions).
Finally, Desperately Seeking Susan is a brilliant video essay by Michael Mackenzie. While exploring the giallo collaborations between Luciano Ercoli and Nieves Navarro, Mackenzie also discusses the role of women in gialli and how their roles became a key facet which spurred the off-shoot F-gialli movement. A commentary by Tim Lucas (of Video Watchdog magazine) is also incorporated.
Words: Daniel Goodwin (@privateutopias)