Death Walks on High Heels/Death Walks at Midnight Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Like most genre-centric filmmakers, giallo directors can be broken down into tiers. At the top, you have the innovators – your Mario Bavas, Dario Argentos, and Lucio Fulcis. Next, you have the stalwarts – directors with a wide breadth of work in the genre, like Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Antonio Margheriti. Then, you have your one hit wonders – filmmakers that didn’t exactly thrive in the confines of the category, but still managed to make at least one brilliant contribution to the giallo pantheon, like Massimo Dallamano, Giulio Questi, and Pupi Avati. At the bottom, you have your shlock artists and Johnny-come-latelys – guys that jumped on the bandwagon, cashed their checks, and moved on to the next big thing. There are too many of these guys to name.
Luciano Ercoli belongs somewhere between tiers two and three. After working as producer on spaghetti westerns, like Duccio Tessari’s A Pistol for Ringo (Italian: Una pistola per Ringo; 1965) and The Return of Ringo (Italian: Il ritorno di Ringo, 1965), he directed/produced/edited his first giallo, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Italian: Le foto proibite di una signora per bene, 1970). Shortly after that film proved financially successful, he popped out two more gialli in a row, Death Walks on High Heels (Italian: La morte cammina con i tacchi alti; sometimes referred to as Death Walks *in* High Heels, 1971) and its spiritual follow-up, Death Walks at Midnight (Italian: La morte accarezza a mezzanotte; aka: Cry Out in Terror, 1972). The first film in the duo has no relation to Lionel Tomlinson’s 1947 crime novel Death on High Heels, and neither film is part of a series with Maurizio Pradeaux’s similarly-named gialli, Death Carries a Cane (Italian: Passi di danza su una lama di rasoio (1973) and Death Steps in the Dark (Passi di morte perduti nel buio, 1977).
Death Walks on High Heels
Nicole (Nieves Navarro), an exotic dancer and the daughter of a murdered jewel thief, finds herself terrorised by a black-clad assailant determined on procuring her father’s stolen gems. Fleeing Paris and her knife-wielding pursuer, Nicole arrives in London only to discover that death stalks her at every corner. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Death Walks on High Heels is the slightly more obscure title in this collection is certainly a product of the post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) school of giallo, from its black gloved, stab-happy villain, to its outrageous fashion sense and lurid sexual content, but it is not a ‘body count’ picture and owes a debt to the era’s equally popular, more action-heavy poliziotteschi (cops & robbers) movies. It’s no mistake, then, that Ercoli’s final two films as a director were both poliziotteschi – Killer Cop (Italian: La polizia ha le mani legate; aka: The Police Can’t Move, 1975) and The Big Rip-off (Italian: La bidonata, 1977). Ernesto Gastaldi’s screenplay (according to Ercoli, the other credited screenwriter, Mahnahén Velasco, didn’t actually work on the story and was only credited because contracts dictated that a Spanish writer have their name in the credits) is sort of notorious in the giallo fan community for its convolutions. The story shifts gears so many times that it’ll give even the seasoned Italian thriller fan whiplash and every time you think they can’t possibly introduce another red herring, a new suspicious face pops up. In an effort to keep the audience in the dark, the writers even change the narrative point-of-view away from the main character in a pseudo-homage to Psycho (1960). It’s definitely not the kind of movie that will win over new giallo converts, but those of us acclimated to such malarky will enjoy the gleeful disregard for logic and storytelling tradition.
Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (credited under the pseudonym ‘Susan Scott’), who was Ercoli’s real-life wife at the time, is fantastic as the lead (at least until the writers switch perspective). Though she embodies many giallo heroine tropes (impeccable fashion sense, exhibitionism, a desirable inheritance) and though Ercoli constantly exploits her sex appeal (she spends approximately half the movie in various states of undress), she’s not a perpetual victim. She plays a proactive role in the plot and is, for a time, presented as an independent breadwinner whose sexual appetites are not a beneficial trait. We’re meant to identify with her, instead of judging or pitying her – both default audience reactions to most women in gialli.
For his part, Ercoli swipes a few gags from Argento, but tends to dial back on the over-the-top camera work. The closer comparison is to Bava’s work, specifically in the use of colour, light, and the zoom function. His attempts at sexploitation, including an awkward introductory strip-tease sequence (performed in blackface, no less) and a howl-worthy erotic eating sequence (if you’re into scantily-clad women eating greasy fish with their bare hands, you are in luck, my friend), are particularly revealing, as well. There’s a lot of blatant fetishism at play here, including a male protagonist’s predilection for thigh-high boots, a peeping tom neighbor, and the fact that so many of the women in the movie are dead ringers for Navarro (it’s not a plot point). The inspectors investigating the case, who are brimming with homoerotic subtext – by the way – even stop along the beach to reenact the possible tying up of a drowning victim. Besides a squirm-worthy cataract removal sequence, a couple of bloody fistfights, and one very graphic knife-point murder (both of the knife attacks occur on beds, seemingly in homage to Bird with the Crystal Plumage), there isn’t a lot of on-screen violence to match the lewd sexual content.
This limited edition Blu-ray Combo Pack collection isn’t the first time Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight have been released as a double-feature. In fact, as far as I can surmise, the only way to get Death Walks on High Heels on digital home video is to also buy the second film. NoShame Films released 2.35:1 anamorphic double-feature collections in the US and Italy with slightly different transfers (see a comparison at Whiggles.com). I also believe both collections are long out-of-print and weren’t reissued by MYA Communications, who ended up with a number of NoShame’s previous releases (I don’t think that MYA has released anything since 2014, so I hope that Arrow ended up with more of NoShame’s catalogue). The image here is about as grainy as expected, but there’s barely any significant print damage. Textures are relatively sharp and the wide-angle patterns are complex, especially during expansive shots of the seaside bungalow that the heroine runs away to. Colour quality is strong and consistent, if not slightly cooled. The lurid neon of the city is every bit as rich as the lush vegetation of the countryside. Really, the only drawback of the entire transfer is that the black levels are really heavy, which causes some crushing, depending on how dark the scene in question is.
Death Walks on High Heels comes fitted with its original Italian and English dubs in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono. As per usual, both tracks are dubbed, because the film was shot without sound. In my experience, English dubs tend to be more dynamically-mixed than their Italian counterparts, but matters are a bit more complicated this time. The English track does, indeed, feature more range and cleaner effects, but the Italian track’s dialogue is less tinny and has fewer high-end distortion issues. In addition, more or less all of the actors (aside from Frank Wolff) are clearly speaking Italian, so the lip-sync of the Italian track is far closer to accurate. Composer Stelvio Cipriani’s super-catchy score offers a slight boost in warmth on the English track. This release also gives the viewer the option to choose from the Italian and English on-screen titles (opening and closing) without negating the option to alternate between the audio languages while the film is running.
Commentary with film critic/author Tim Lucas – Lucas’ vast knowledge base is always welcome and it is especially nice to hear him speaking on a non-Bava motion picture. This track is down to business and covers the themes, context, and working histories of just about every major player.
Introduction to the film by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (1:50, HD)
From Spain with Love (24:20, HD) – An archive interview with director Luciano Ercoli and actress Nieves Navarro. Each participant discusses their earlier careers (Ercoli working his way up as a producer and Navarro working her way up as a model), developing working relationships with other filmmakers (as well as each other), and the making-of the two Death Walks movies. Navarro is the highlight, because she’s so brutally honest about everything.
Master of Giallo (32:30, HD) – In this new interview, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi cuts loose to talk about storytelling. He begins by discussing “what makes a great giallo,” but quickly goes off on a tangent and doesn’t return to the Death Walks movies for almost 20 minutes. It’s delightful.
Death Walks to the Beat (26:30, HD) – The third interview is with composer Stelvio Cipriani, who speaks while sitting at his piano, so that he can play a couple of bars, while also contextualizing Death Walks on High Heels’ music within his larger catalogue.
Italian and English trailers
Death Walks at Midnight
While in the midst of a drug-fuelled photoshoot, a model named Valentina (Nieves Navarro) witnesses a brutal murder in the apartment opposite hers. But when it becomes clear that the savage slaying she describes relates to a crime that took place six months earlier, the police are at a loss – forcing Valentina to solve the mystery alone. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
If you squint while watching Death Walks at Midnight, you might think you’re accidentally re-watching Death Walks on High Heels. And that’s no mistake, because Ercoli’s second giallo was co-written by the same screenwriter, Gastaldi (with additional credits to Guido Leoni and none other than Django director Sergio Corbucci), shot by the same cinematographer (Fernando Arribas), and features performances by Death Walks on High Heels stars Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Carlo Gentili, Claudie Lange, Fabrizio Moresco, and Luciano Rossi. Don’t worry, though – if you open your eyes a bit wider, you’ll notice that Ercoli and company improved on their earlier effort in almost every way. The director builds upon his widescreen versions of Bava’s classic neo-gothic style with far bloodier murder sequences that are distinctly hallucinogenic, similar to the kind of stuff Lucio Fulci did with the genre. He also dials way back on the awkward fetishism (I don’t believe there’s any nudity in the entire movie) in order to focus on story, suspense, and an even more elaborate, climactic fist fight.
Gastaldi’s script still sticks to a number of the giallo tropes he helped to establish and is even more outrageous in terms of its core concepts, but it doesn’t indulge in as many plot twists and narrative dead-ends (you’d still have to be some kind of insane genius to follow the entire story, though). This time, he sticks to a single, central mystery and focuses on building characters over establishing red herrings. Death Walks at Midnight is also quite funny, which helps to establish a more likable tone. Nieves Navarro is, once again, great in her heavy-handed way and overcomes a lot of the film’s inherent sexism with strength and conviction (at one point, she shrugs off a really clumsy rape attempt by smacking the guy a couple of times and moving on with her day). Multiple sources claim that her character type and the general tone of the screenplay was inspired by a series of Italian ‘photonovel’ comics, known as fumetti, which were aimed at a female readership. Indeed, she embodies a firecracker attitude that falls right in line with Lois Lane and Friday Foster. I would happily welcome an entire series of Valentina crime-solving tales.
Death Walks at Midnight is notable even by those that haven’t seen it for its poster art and promotional images of the killer’s spiked gauntlet slicing open a victim’s face. The use of such a unique murder weapon may actually be Death Walks at Midnight’s enduring legacy. Most giallo killers were content to stab and slice their victims with carving knives and straight razors (sometimes axes), but their slasher progeny often carried trademark murder implements and it is possible that this movie inspired that practice. At least a little.
Death Walks at Midnight was, as mentioned above, available as part of NoShame’s double-feature DVD and was also released via Mondo Macabro in the UK, though that disc was misframed at 1.85:1 (see another Whiggles.com comparison here). This new 2.35:1, 1080p transfer appears to be a solid upgrade on both releases and is generally comparable to the Death Walks at Midnight transfer in terms of its strengths and weaknesses. Again, grain is present and even prevalent, but never excessive. Print damage is minimal and there aren’t any notable CRT machine artefacts. The cranked contrast levels are a slightly bigger problem here, considering how much of the movie is shot in starkly decorated, white sets, where walls and lights can bloom alongside the occasionally crushed blacks. Fortunately, the brightness is part of the intended look and the dynamic range helps to sharpen the wider-angle details. Outside of the brighter general appearance, the palette is very similar to Death Walks at Midnight, including contrasting city and countryside hues.
This Blu-ray also comes fitted with both the original Italian and English dubs in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. Here, the difference between the dubs swings even more in the Italian track’s favour, but it continues to be a mixed bag. While the English dialogue sounds more natural and the Italian dialogue tends to buzz during its loudest moments, everything else about the Italian track is louder, cleaner, and better balanced. The English track sets the music low and nearly drops many of the incidental and environmental sound effects entirely. Composer Gianni Ferrio’s score is a bit more traditionally giallo-esque, especially its jazzy opening titles, which specifically ape the ‘la, la, la’ female vocal patterns Ennio Morricone made famous with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (it might even feature the same vocalist).
Commentary with film critic/author Tim Lucas – Another ace, info-packed track from Lucas.
Introduction to the film by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (2:00, HD)
TV version of Death Walks at Midnight (1:46:00, HD) – This extended version of the film contains exclusive footage (story stuff, not gore). The transfer was sourced from a video tape, is non-anamorphic pan & scan (framed at about 1.33:1), and features a number of tracking errors. Still, the overall image and sound quality (Italian dialogue with English subtitles) is at least as good as a DVD, so, framing issues aside, it’s far from unwatchable.
Crime Does Pay (31:00, HD) – More with writer Gastaldi, who, again, goes off on some wild tangents, but tends to stick to his working relationship with Ercoli. This utterly delightful second part to the interview is like listening to your favourite grandpa recalling his glory days after drinking an entire pot of coffee.
Desperately Seeking Susan (27:50, HD) – This slickly-produced visual essay by filmmaker/playwright/screenwriter Michael Mackenzie explores the three giallo collaborations between director Luciano Ercoli and star Nieves Navarro, including the two Death Walks movies and Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. It is a companion piece to Mackenzie’s visual essays on Arrow’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), in which he breaks down gialli into male (M Giallo) and female (F Giallo) subtypes.
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