Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-04-10 04:29

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: April 5th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

The last of a trio of giallo collaborations between Luciano Ercoli and Ernesto Gastaldi, Death Walks at Midnight is arguably the strongest of the bunch, if only because it feels like the two finally pinned down and mastered the form. Where Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion and Death Walks on High Heels feel like the two tinkering around with a formula, Midnight puts everything together and most closely approaches giallo expectations. And while subverting or upending formulaic expectations is laudable, there’s something to be said about a well-executed formula: sometimes, expectations exist to be fulfilled, and Death Walks at Midnight delivers just about everything required of a giallo: a gorgeous woman in peril, a jangly score, garish bloodshed, a mysterious killer, and a labyrinthine plot all of which are wrapped up into a delirious haze.

Delirium defines the film early, as fashion model Valentina (Nieves Navarro) and her photojournalist boy-toy (Simon Andreu) agree to document the effects of an experimental drug. Upon taking the drug, Valentina begins to wildly hallucinate, moving from the throes of ecstasy to a warped, unrepressed memory involving a man with a spiked glove brutally pummeling a girl to death. In one of the most stunning giallo murders ever filmed, Ercoli captures the savagery from a first-person perspective, with the murder instrument filling the frame, splattering blood all over the lens in an almost invasive act.

If this opening sequence is a hallucinatory trip, the rest of the film comprises the comedown, an extended freakout wherein Valentina insists she saw an actual murder. Even worse, she’s convinced the killer now stalks her in the hopes of tying up any loose ends and witnesses. Others insist she’s simply imagining the entire ordeal as the lingering after-effects of her experience; however, Ercoli and company cleverly let the audience know otherwise with plenty of objective evidence that this deranged killer—adorned in oversized shades and wearing a perpetual sneer—certainly exists.

It’s a revelation that actually adds intrigue to the proceedings rather than deflating it: by confirming that Valentina is actually being stalked, Ercoli tightens the noose around her, constantly heightening her sense of helplessness. Interiors shots become positively suffocating as Ercoli’s camera peeks in from within medicine cabinets and creeps around walks. Not only does the killer lurk behind every corner, but so too does a series of discoveries that twists the plot into knots. Backstories involving slain and suicidal women and their associates clutter the proceedings, further muddying the waters. The deeper Valentia plunges, the less it all seems to make any sense: the only constant is the almost preternatural presence of the killer himself, his nostrils flaring with intense, palpable contempt at the very sight of Valentina.

While Death Walks at Midnight is no less serpentine and convoluted than High Heels, it feels more sustained and intently focused. Where that film saw Ercoli furiously pulling the rug from beneath his audience, this one has him leading them down dark corridors, constantly luring them around corners before revealing the ridiculous truth after a series of wild twists and turns. Like High Heels, Midnight relies on a hefty amount of exposition to eventually untangle itself, so it loses a bit of steam before its knock-down, drag-out climax.

This is only a minor stumble, however, as Death Walks at Midnight is an intense exercise in paranoia, one that moves with an almost sinister intent as it follows this haunted woman, whose terror is matched only by her disbelief. Of Ercoli’s three giallo collaborations with his wife, Navarro fares the best here by nimbly gliding between recoiling in horror and scrappily fighting to convince everyone around her of the truth. She mostly trends towards the latter, taking on the fiery personality of a pistol who won’t be denied, and the screenplay rightfully fastens her place as an agent in her own proceedings, something High Heels definitely could not boast (to put it mildly). To put it bluntly, she’s a badass here, which always a more interesting proposition in a genre that sometimes features seedy sexual and gender politics.

Ercoli’s time spent with the giallo genre was brief but impactful. Though he would never properly direct another one after this trio, the films are dazzling examples of the form, all of them legitimately lurid yarns that lean less on graphic violence and sleaze and more on twisted plots. Glimpses of the typical motifs abound here in bottles of J&B, blood-spattered death instruments, and gleaming knives driven through a victim’s heart, but they’re all shiny things, seemingly deployed to occupy viewers as the plot spirals out of control. Death Walks at Midnight more or less bludgeons its audience with a spiked glove before dragging them behind with little regard for keeping it up to speed. Looking back on it, I’m not sure I even completely grasp the intricacies of the plot, but it’s the sort of exquisite nonsense that lingers like the repressed memories coaxed from a bad trip.

The disc:

Once again paired with its Death Walks brethren as part of a limited edition box set from Arrow Video, Ercoli’s final giallo makes its Blu-ray debut with a remarkably restored transfer and uncompressed English and Italian language soundtracks. Anyone who missed out on the NoShame DVD release would be wise to snap this one up, especially since it also adds some newly produced features, including an audio commentary from Tim Lucas and a host of retrospective interviews and introduction from some of the cast and crew spread across both discs.

Gastaldi appears in separate features on both: on this particular disc, he shows up in “Crime Does Pay,” where he discusses Death Walks at Midnight and his other crime screenplays. A video essay by Michael McKenzie titled “Desperately Seeking Susan” examines Ercoli and Navarro’s various collaborations, while both films are analyzed in a 60-page booklet featuring liner notes from various genre experts. An extended television version of Death Walks at Midnight is also included, albeit in a cropped, unremastered form (still, its inclusion is obviously appreciable from a curiosity standpoint).

Besides its utter completeness, this set excels at not only highlighting Ercoli but also his collaborators in Navarro, Gastaldi, and composer Stelvio Cipriani, all of whom are vital, underappreciated talents that helped to define the early days of the giallo film. This is no small feat, and it’s nice to see them receive their due after spending years in the shadows of Argento, Bava, and Fulci.
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