Although both Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972) fall under the heading of giallo, they differ decisively from what one expects from that cult Italian genre. There are, of course, similarities between these two films by Luciano Ercoli and the ouevre of giallo heavyweights Dario Argento and Mario Bava. But a stronger adherence to logical plotting and a lot less blood and guts should mean Ercoli’s films will appeal to audiences unconvinced by other films in the genre. The eroticism, twists, turns and, of course, the demented killer on the loose all fit the established giallo model, though.
The finest film of the two is 1971’s Death Walks on High Heels. Its globe-trotting, Hitchcockian twists and turns mark it out as one of the finest examples of giallo ever made. The plot concerns a Parisian night club dancer, Nicole Rochard (Nieves Navarro, credited as Susan Scott), who’s being threatened by a psycho with piercing blue eyes and a switchblade, who wants to steal jewels Nicole is suspected of having. Her boyfriend, Michel (Simón Andreu), is jealous and possessive, and he’s little help when Nicole tells him what’s happening to her. Finding blue contact lenses in his apartment, she leaves him and flees for England with Dr. Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), an admirer of her erotic dance work who visits her backstage. A quiet English village provides no refuge though, as the mystery and the murders continue.
I won’t spoil the film by revealing any of the many twists that occur throughout. But the way they’re incorporated and supplemented by insightful flashbacks piece the truth together slowly and enticingly. It has the confidence to leave you guessing as to whether you’re seeing something in flashback or in the present. By the film’s close, all is wrapped up in a satisfying and unexpected way. Ercoli seems always to know where to put the camera for maximum affect and he does so without diverting from the mind-bending momentum of the plot for a second. But just because it can handle a plot and throw the viewer’s perspective from side to side, that doesn’t mean it can’t have fun too. Moments of comic relief are blended well, such as when Michel throws up out of an open window onto the head of a British bobby standing guard below. After viewing Death Walks on High Heels, it’s hard not to argue that Ercoli is a more intelligent filmmaker than Argento or any of his giallo contemporaries.
Death Walks at Midnight was made the following year with pretty much the same cast and crew. This time, Nieves Navarro plays a fashion model, Valentina. Simón Andreu plays Gio, a journalist stirring up a story. He manages to rope her into taking an experimental drug developed by a bogus Italian professor. It’s during this drug trial that Valentina has a vision of a young woman being murdered by a man with a spiked metal glove, but the murderer wasn’t the product of a psychedelic drug trip. It’s not long before he’s stepped out of her mind and into her reality, and it’s clear she’s his next would-be victim.
Navarro has to carry the narrative more than in Death Walks on High Heels (which she’s more than capable of doing so), but overall the film is not as intriguing as the original. It follows a similar pattern, with gore and sex edged out for intricate plotting. The murderer seems to evade Valentina when she’s looking for him, before turning up out of nowhere when she least expects it. The police chief from Death Walks on High Heels returns, but he’s more ineffectual here, leaving Valentina to pursue the killer and solve the mystery by herself. Death Walks at Midnight loses its way a little in the middle, in a way that the earlier film never did. When it regains its stride towards the end, however, it’s easy to forgive its failings.
In many ways, these two films (especially the first) have as much in common with the best political and crime thrillers to come out of Italy at the time as with giallo. The genre dominated by Argento and Bava was taken by Ercoli and turned into something new with these two films. The genre has its origins in US horror and crime films, but it’s in Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight that you can most clearly see the future of American thrillers, especially the output of Brian De Palma during the ’70s and ’80s. This Death Walks Twice box set is as well-presented as you’d expect from Arrow. The films are 2K restorations from the original negatives, and the extras, including interviews and commentaries, are all insightful and complement the films very nicely.
Cast & Crewdirector: Luciano Ercoli.
writers: Manuel Velasco & Dino Verde ('Death Walks on High Heels') & Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco & Mannuel Velasco ('Death Walks At Midnight')
starring: Frank Wolff, Susan Scott, Simón Andreu & Carlo Gentili ('Death Walks on High Heels') & Susan Scott, Simón Andreu, Peter Martell, Claudie Lange & Carlo Gentili ('Death Walks At Midnight').