Color, 1972, 88 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Silvio Amadio
Starring Rosalba Neri, Jenny Tamburi, Silvano Tranquilli, Hiram Keller
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Cineploit (Blu-ray) (Germany R2 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Color, 1972, 103 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Francesco Mazzei
Starring Renzo Montagnani, Bedy Moratti, Eva Czemerys, Maurizio Bonuglio, Salvatore Puntillo, Claudia Gravy, Arturo Trina
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Koch Media (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Color, 1974, 103 mins. 1 sec.
Directed by Giuseppe Bennati
Starring Rosanna Schiaffino, Chris Avram, Eva Czemerys, Lucretia Love, Janet Agren, Paola Senatore, Gaetano Russo, Howard Ross
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Camera Obscura (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The heyday of Smile Before Deaththe wonderful strain of Italian-made thriller known as the giallo is strewn Smile Before Deathwith stylish little gems never shown in most English-speaking countries, but the Blu-ray era has been stepping up to the plate for years now correcting that situation delivering plenty of eye-opening gems. Arrow Video has been a particularly rich resource, and more recently they've been collecting some of their greatest hits into three-title sets called Giallo Essentials (with preceding "Red" and "Yellow" collections including The Possessed, The Fifth Cord, The Pyjama Girl Case, Torso, Strip Nude for Your Killer, and What Have They Done to Your Daughters?). The third set released in 2022, the "Black" collection, breaks the mold by offering three new releases instead, none of which have ever had U.S. or U.K. home video releases before-- and all are definitely worth checking out.

First up is Silvio Amadio's Smile Before Death (Il sorriso della iena, or The Smile of the Hyena), which is far better known to Italian cult movie fans for its perky, severely infectious main theme that kicked off the first volume of the essential Beat at CinecittĂ  CD series. You get to hear it a lot over the course of the film, too, which essentially feels like a Smile Before Deathcross between the posh Umberto Lenzi gialli with Carroll Baker and the Hammer classic Scream of Fear. Released during the apex of the giallo craze in 1972, it's also a pop art feast for the eyes with punchy colors and outrageous decor all over the Smile Before Deathplace as well as a smile-inducing party scene with an adorable dancing cameo by Barbara Bouchet.

When her mother dies from a bloody throat slashing in the pre-credits sequence, the cops write it off as a particularly nasty suicide. However, young Nancy Thompson (The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine's Tamburi), no connection to the later heroine played by Heather Langenkamp, comes back home from school to spend time with her stepfather, Marco (The Bloodstained Butterfly's Tranquilli), and his mistress, photographer Gianna (Lady Frankenstein's Neri). What follows is a string of double crosses, shock revelations, and sexy photo shoots, not necessarily in that order. For the most part this is a three-character chamber mystery, but the story does open up at times and features a small but key role for Fellini Satyricon star Hiram Keller, who made this just before Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eyes. It's a bit remarkable that Amadio, who was previously known for more high-toned fare like Assassination in Rome and War Gods of Babylon, suddenly decided to go full-throttle into the giallo craze and delivered both this and the wonderful Amuck (with Neri and Bouchet) in the same year. Unfortunately unlike its sister film, this one didn't get a U.S. theatrical release Smile Before Deathand had to lurk around on the gray market with bad copies from its scant Euro Smile Before DeathVHS editions having to do for a very long time.

Fortunately the Arrow release corrects that situation with a gorgeous 2K scan from the original camera negative featuring options to watch the film with the English or Italian title sequences and their respective language options (in crisp LPCM mono with English translated or English SDH subtitles). Anyone who suffered through the miserable earlier incarnations of this film should be pleasantly startled by how much better it plays when you can really savor its candy-colored aesthetic at last. An audio commentary by this writer and Troy Howarth can't be evaluated here, obviously, but you'll hopefully get something out of it. In "Smile of the Hyena" (23m25s), Stefano Amadio, film journalist and son of the director, is interviewed about his dad; unfortunately the disc provided had no English subtitles for this extra but hopefully that'll be fixed for the final pressing. A real plus for fans of Tamburi and Neri is a batch of "never-before-seen extended nude scenes" (3m15s) featuring a lot more exposure than you'd expect and even a brief love scene. Finally the disc concludes with an image gallery of 13 images, mostly lobby cards (and one of 'em containing a huge spoiler!). A simultaneous German Blu-ray from Cineploit (not available for comparison) features Italian and English audio options, a 48-minute Tamburi interview (not English friendly) from 1995, a 9-minute The Weapon, the Hour, the MotiveChristian Kessler The Weapon, the Hour, the Motivefeaturette, and an image gallery.

Disc two features a real boon for giallo fans, the first English-friendly release of another 1972 title, The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive (L'arma, l'ora, il movente), which tackles the role of Catholicism in the provinces outside the usual swanky urban setting. It also joins Killer Nun as a rare fusion of the giallo and nunsploitation, particularly a delirious extended sequence with rows of topless nuns flagellating themselves in repentance. It's also an engaging and solid murder mystery revolving around the slaying of Don Giorgio (The Perfume of the Lady in Black's Bonuglia), who was prone to scarring his own back with a whip due to this illicit affairs with two women, Orchidea (Moratti) and Giulia (Czemerys). His death may have been witnessed in the church by young Ferruccio (Trina), the orphan altar boy who tends to hang out in a skeleton-filled ossuary. Enter Inspector Boito (The Libertine's Montagnani), who finds himself drawn to one of the suspects as he tries to piece together what scheming mind is behind it all.

The Weapon, the Hour, the MotiveAs with other province-set peers like Don't Torture a Duckling and Bloodstained Shadow, this film has an eerie atmosphere that's very different from the slick, cosmopolitan setting found in most gialli. That works in its favor with the The Weapon, the Hour, the Motivechurch keeping a believably overwhelming grip on the populace and causing sexual frustration to manifest among its clergy and congregation in a variety of ways, at times feeling almost like an Italian take on Alice, Sweet Alice. That makes its one really graphic murder sequence (a blood-splashing stunner involving a straight razor) all the more shocking, and the decent roster of suspects keeps your attention all the way to the unusual, very baroque climax that appropriately gives a macabre take on a familiar religious ceremony. Extra points for one of the goofiest freeze-frame closing shots in giallo history, too.

Insanely difficult to see in an English-friendly edition of any kind, The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive first appeared on DVD in 2013 as part of the German Die Koch Media Giallo-Collection Teil 1 along with Deadly Inheritance and The Laughing Woman. Unfortunately that release (with German and Italian audio options with German subtitles) was taken from a battered, very washed-out print that did the film no favors; its sole extra as "Giallo Puntillo" (10m34s), an Italian interview with actor Salvatore Puntillo. The Arrow Blu-ray is a tremendous improvement in every way, featuring a 2K scan that makes the film The Weapon, the Hour, the Motivemuch easier to The Weapon, the Hour, the Motiveappreciate with its sunny photography contrasting effectively with the dark subject matter. There's finally real, robust color on display here, especially the evocative underground crypt sequences. The LPCM Italian mono track is in good condition and features optional English-translated subtitles. In an interesting quirk, the extras feature the recovered English-language opening and closing title sequences (3m26s), though apparently the full English dub no longer exists. A new audio commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas features a discussion about the background of the giallo, her favorite 1972 gialli titles, and a lengthy history of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as frequent deployment of the term "horny priest." There are many very long silent gaps throughout (over half the film), so prepare to fast forward a lot. A new Puntillo interview, "A man in Giallo" (13m32s), covers his positive memories of the film and his experience on the set as well as other highlights including his small role in Deep Red. Finally you get a quick 6-image gallery.

Disc three presents the most widely seen film in the bunch (relatively speaking), the slick, nastily effective The Killer Reserved Nine Seats. Sporting a lush Carlo Savina music score, a quirky stable of potential victims, The Killer Reserved Nine Seatsand the can't-miss setting of a remote and creepy old theater, it's a veritable candy jar of illicit '70s The Killer Reserved Nine Seatsdelights delivering a body count movie with an unexpected twist.

A fleet of cars pulls up over the opening credits at that aforementioned theater, the centerpiece of an abandoned Gothic castle where, according to legend, horrible murders occur once every century. Chief among the new arrivals is Patrick Devenant (Bay of Blood's Avram), a wealthy bigwig who's been partying with some close family and friends (most of whom seem to be scheming to screw him over in one way or another). Also present are his fiancee, Kim (City of the Living Dead's Agren), a pair of glamorous lesbians (Czemerys again and Love), and the obligatory sexist pig, Russell (New York Ripper's Ross). Right away everyone's making out in private, spouting Shakespeare quotes, and dodging falling wooden beams on the stage... but when Kim ends up with a knife in her back while acting out the finale from Romeo and Juliet, it's clear that there's a mad killer on the loose. Decked out in a black cloak and a creepy mask, he quickly makes short work of the cast with stabbings and double crosses turning the theater into a slaughterhouse.

Barely released and impossible to see in anything resembling a quality transfer for decades, The Killer Reserved Nine Seats is certainly a sleek piece of work but an interesting departure for the norms of 1974. The Argento/Martino-era fondness for high fashion and modern urban settings is traded here for an atmospheric throwback to the Gothic horrors of the 1960s, even complete with torches, moldering crypts, and family curses. That said, it still indulges in some of the more extreme touches of the era by having all of the female cast members disrobe at some point and embellishing a couple of the murders with a fair amount of sadism, including the old crotch-stabbing trick and a grisly bit of crucifixion. Even by giallo The Killer Reserved Nine Seatsstandards the script is difficult to sort out at times given the numerous agendas going on, but if you forget trying to make sense of it all, the climax is a rousing series of nasty reversals The Killer Reserved Nine Seatswith multiple characters trying to off each other all at once.

The decision to make this film the inaugural Blu-ray release from Camera Obscura back in 2014 was an unexpected but welcome one, and it goes without saying that this was a major revelation compared to the murky VHS copies fans had been swapping for years. The film is shot in fairly earthy hues with occasional bursts of bright red to liven things up, so don't expect this to look like, say, Mondo Candido. (Oddly enough, at times this looks very similar to Pete Walker's theater-set slasher film, The Flesh and Blood Show.) That said, it's a pristine HD rendering of a film horrifically mistreated on home video up to this point, and the mono audio is also a major step up in terms of clarity. The film was shot in Italian so that option is definitely preferable (with optional English or German subtitles available), though the English dub included offers a very different translation and makes for far more amusingly lurid viewing. A handful of dialogue exchanges were never recorded in English, so those remain in Italian with a separate sub track for just those bits.

Chief among the extras is another good-natured and informative audio commentary by Marcus Stiglegger and Kai Naumann (in German with optional English subs), who as usual have a great rapport as they alternate in-depth discussions of the players in front of and behind the camera while dissecting many of the tropes of the giallo formula. The first featurette, "Writing with Biagio" (28m38s), spotlights screenwriter Biagio Proietti who talks about finding inspiration in Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, the heyday of erotic cinema, the rules of the thriller genre, his The Killer Reserved Nine Seatstwo comedy directorial efforts, and his happiness The Killer Reserved Nine Seatswriting for TV. Next is "Hanging with Howard" (8m23s), a genial chat with actor Howard Ross about his fellow actors on this film (most of whom he liked) and his affection for his entire filmography, within which he regards all of the movies like children. The disc rounds out with the English and Italian trailers, a photo gallery, and fairly brief but useful liner notes in both languages by Christian Kessler. As usual for the company, the packaging is gorgeous. The Arrow edition ports over the Proietti and Ross featurettes as well as the English and Italian trailers, adding on a 25-image gallery of poster and lobby card art for good measure. This edition drops the Stiglegger-Naumann commentary in favor of a new one by Kat Ellinger who enthusiastically talks about the giallo and the Gothic, the implementation of its despicable characters, the use of locations in postwar Italy, the symbolism of mirrors, and the use of thriller conventions. As for the film itself, it's from the same scan (which is fine) and looks extremely similar, albeit just a notch brighter and warmer (see below). Again you get the Italian and (mostly) English tracks (LPCM mono) with English subtitles options, both of which sound excellent. As usual, the set is given the deluxe packaging treatment including a rigid box with each disc sporting reversible sleeve art (including new designs by Adam Rabalais, Peter Strain and Haunt Love) plus, in the first pressing only, illustrated booklets for each with new essays by Rachael Nisbet, Barry Forshaw, and Peter Jilmstad.


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Reviewed on July 4, 2022.