Death Walks on High Heels (1971)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: April 5th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman(@brettgallman)
Death Walks on High Heels opens with a familiar shot of a pair of black gloves, the standard-issue fashion accessory for any giallo film. Even by 1971, the image was synonymous with the genre, now burgeoning after Bava and Argento’s early forays into the form. For Luciano Ercoli, High Heels was already his second effort following Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, and his opening shot feels like an acknowledgement of an already codified formula. So too does his decision to pan up to reveal the gloves’ owner, a shady man wearing an eye-patch—in other words, just the sort of unscrupulous person you’d expect to be a prime suspect of a giallo.
But as quick as Ercoli is to surround his audience with familiar signposts, he’s even more eager to tear them down. Whoever this mysterious individual is, he doesn’t make it past the opening sequence, where he’s swiftly murdered in his own train compartment, a turn of events that practically announces Ercoli’s intention to thoroughly disorient an audience with the dizzying, dazzling Death on High Heels.
Some answers come quickly when we meet Nicole Rochard (Nieves Navarro), an exotic dancer and potential ne’er-do-well according to the police. It turns out the slain man on the train was her father, an internationally renowned thief whose final heist went very awry—but not so much so that he couldn’t have squirrelled away the stolen jewels with his daughter. Flabbergasted, Nicole denies the allegations, brushes them off, and takes the stage that night with a bizarre blackface routine. Soon, however, she finds her stalked by a masked madman with piercing blue eyes, a discovery that sends her fleeing the country into the arms of British doctor Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff).
Most gialli thrive on gaps in logic, but this decision in Death Walks on High Heels just might take the cake. It’s not just that Nicole is being stalked; rather, she has reason to suspect her boyfriend (Simon Andreu) is the culprit. You might think the most prudent course of action would be to alert the police to investigate, but apparently shacking up with another guy in another country makes more sense. Not that it matters, of course, since trouble follows Nicole anyway, though her decision making is a nice reflection of just how loopy the film’s internal logic is. Once you realize this is her course of action, it’s a good sign that you should strap in for disorienting ride, one that won’t always conform to anything approaching actual sense.
This is not only expected of a giallo film but also downright required, and Ercoli spins quite a yarn from a winding, twisting screenplay that consistently delivers giallo touchstones, albeit in slightly scrambled fashion. Death Walks on High Heels almost feels like a puzzle that&襊s been dashed to pieces after someone upended a table, its scattered parts still recognizable but strewn about, in need of being reconstructed. Watching as Ercoli pieces together the familiar collection of black gloves, jazzy bars, mangled corpses, random weirdos, and shadowy assassins is a perverse joy, if only because the logic is so screwy even by giallo standards.
Because Ercoli and company seem to be dead set on keeping the audience unsettled, Death Walks on High Heels takes on a jagged rhythm that’s difficult to pin down. Three distinct acts eventually emerge, each of them marked by an unexpected turn of events, such as Nicole’s decision to just get right out of dodge. Something even more surprising turns the film on its head midway through, leading to a playful final act that leaves you convinced Ercoli is just doing everything he can to fuck with you. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” you might wonder, bewildered by the climactic revelations prompted by one of the most unforgettable deus-ex-machinas I’ve come across in recent memory. Let’s just say you should always be careful about how much ice you buy if you’re trying to get away with murder.
With a 105-minute runtime and sporting only three deaths, Death Walks on High Heels obviously relies more on its labyrinthine story than it does graphic violence, so it often feels more like a gonzo police procedural more than it does an outright giallo. The final third features some especially talkative detective work as the script has its characters clumsily spill secrets to lock the final story pieces into place. Psycho seems to be an inspiration for the film’s structure, particularly in the way it untangles sordid secrets alongside sexual confusion (which is admittedly nothing but a red herring here—how appropriate that even this film’s title is total nonsense, really). Ercoli is less graceful than Hitchcock but is arguably just as spirited in the delivery—there’s a definite wryness here that compensates for the convoluted plot.
His sense of style also helps to elevate the material, as his camera elegantly tracks, zooms, and weaves its way through the proceedings, often lovingly gazing upon Navarro (and with good reason—she and Ercoli would wed the next year). While Death Walks on High Heels doesn’t take on the otherworldly, nightmarish tenor of other gialli, it has inspired bursts where the camera captures the gleam of a straight razor or the garish bloodshed of a slit throat. These are the unmistakable hallmarks of a genre that still hadn’t quite been tamed just yet, so it’s sometimes hard to tell if Ercoli is legitimately upending its conventions or figuring out exactly how they worked. The final result is a little messy, a sort of hastily reconfigured puzzle whose pieces have been jammed together, but the fun is in the crooked, illogically smashed edges that give the film its sense of wicked, cockeyed personality.
Since their DVD debut, Death on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight have been an inseparable duo, arriving together in an impressive collector’s edition box set from NoShame. A decade later, Arrow Video has continued the tradition by packaging the two in Death Walks Twice, a new, limited edition collector’s edition set that features newly restored transfers for both the English and Italian versions of each film.
Giallo enthusiast and cult movie historian Tim Lucas provides commentary on both films as well, while screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi appears in an optional introduction for each. The disc for High Heels specifically features “From Spain With Love,” a newly produced retrospective featuring interviews with Ercoli and Navarro, plus “Master of Giallo,” an extended interview with Gastaldi. “Death Walks to the Beat” is an interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani, who discusses his contributions to both this film and others throughout his career.
Of the two films here, Death Walks on High Heels feels a bit more like a rough draft compared to Midnight, but two in conjunction reveal the mischievously clever potential of a genre Ercoli managed to harness in the space of three films, thus rightfully securing his place in the cult canon. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: