October 31, 2018

Haunted Halloween Nights, Part 3: Modern vs. Medieval

Poster - Night of the Devils (1972)
Now Playing: Night of the Devils (La notte dei diavoli; 1972)

Pros: Adds a new twist or two to the visitor-stranded-in-an-old-dark-house cliché.
Cons: Inconsistent gore effects and day-for-night cinematography undercut the eerie atmosphere.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
  ― Robert Frost

...Unless you are a ravening creature of the undead, a vourdalak, in which case you might want to do everyone a favor and find a nearby Super8 motel to park your rotting carcass. Unfortunately for the eastern European family in Night of the Devils, what is usually considered a strength -- family loyalty -- contributes to their dreadful undoing.

The film opens with a man stumbling out of the woods. With his torn coat and long, bloody scratches running down his face, he looks like he’s about to join the ranks of the undead (or maybe just the plain old dead). He collapses by a picturesque stream.

Cut to the local hospital where the doctors have hooked up the semi-comatose man to a science-fictiony brain-scanning device. Still in a state of shock, he sees disturbing visions including a maggot-infested skull, a woman’s head being blasted down to the bone, and an operation conducted by two spooky, skull-faced figures who cut the still-beating heart out of a body.

Neither the doctors or the police inspector can get anything out of him, except to note that his expensive clothes indicate that he is a wealthy foreigner (the locality being 1972-era Yugoslavia). The main physician also comments to the inspector that the patient becomes quite agitated when it gets dark, and that every night he stands at the window “looking into the darkness like a scared, cornered animal.”

That night, an attractive young woman, Sdenka (Agostina Belli), shows up at the hospital claiming to know the mystery man. She identifies him as Nicola, a lumber importer. The doctor takes Sdenka to see him, but when Nicola catches sight of her, he tears himself away from the orderlies and flees in terror down the corridor.

Back in his bed and now wearing a straight-jacket, he starts to remember how he got into his predicament…

On a bright sunny day, Nicola (Gianni Garko) is driving along forlorn country back roads to his business appointment. In classic horror movie fashion, he becomes lost, takes a turn down an unpromising road, almost hits a mysterious woman in black, and disables his car running up an embankment. As he tramps through the lonely woods to find help, the sight of huge black boars rummaging through the brush and the sounds of strange cries and moans tells him he’s not in Kansas (or contemporary east Europe) anymore.

Gianni Garko as Nicola
Some days, it just doesn't pay to get lost in the
godforsaken wilderness of eastern Europe.
The help he manages to find is hardly reassuring. He discovers a ramshackle old house, home to the extended Ciuvelak clan, who are just coming back from burying the brother of the patriarch, Gorca Ciuvelak (William Vanders). When Nicola asks for a ride to the nearest village, the stern old man tells him it will have to wait until tomorrow, as night is approaching and the woods are not safe after dark.

Accepting Gorca’s offer to stay the night, Nicola finds himself in a kind of time warp, as the house, lit only by candles and gas lamps and heated by the fireplace, seems to be something out of the 19th century. And the family is definitely odd. They bar the doors and windows at night, yet insist that they’re the only people left in the god-forsaken place.

Gorca’s eldest son Jovan (Roberto Maldera) tells Nicola that he learned auto mechanics in the army, and that he can probably fix the car (although where he is going to get the parts is not made clear).

The next morning, as Jovan works on Nicola’s car, Gorca announces that he is setting out to hunt down and destroy the “living dead” witch who has seduced his brother, caused his death, and brought a curse down upon the family (and who incidentally caused Nicola to crash his car). Jovan solemnly informs his father that if he’s not back by sunset, he is “finished.”

Nicola becomes more unsettled as he learns from the little girl Irina, Gorca’s niece (Cinzia De Carolis), all about the witch’s doings and her uncle’s mission to destroy the woman, and the deadline that Jovan has set.

William Vanders as Gorca
"Why father, what a long face you have!"
Gorca arrives at the house just as the mantle clock finishes chiming 6 o’clock. There is doubt among the family members -- did he make the deadline or not? -- but it’s dispelled when he dumps the bloody hand of the witch he has killed on the table and announces that the curse has been lifted.

Later that night, Gorca’s lovely and innocent daughter Sdenka declares her love for Nicola, clearly hoping the handsome stranger will take her away from the mad household. He reciprocates her feelings and takes her to bed.

The respite from high strangeness doesn’t last very long, however, as within a few hours the family learns that Gorca has spirited his niece Irina away in the night, and turned her into a living dead revenant like himself. Nicola watches in horror as Jovan plunges a wooden stake through Gorka’s heart.

Little does he know that in short order, he will be battling a whole family of vourdalaks, and wondering if his beloved Sdenka has also become a monster.

Night of the Devils was the second film inspired by Aleksey Tolstoy’s novella The Family of the Vourdalak (1886), the first being the “I Wurdalak” segment of Mario Bava’s classic Black Sabbath (1963). Mario Bava’s version is set squarely in the 19th century, and not only features a truly creepy atmosphere decorated, lit and shot by a master film craftsman, but also boasts one of Boris Karloff’s most chilling performances.

Night is a longer treatment, and takes a different approach in framing the story of the doomed Ciuvelak clan with the very contemporary scenes of the hospital. Nicola becomes a man lost in space and time, an ordinary modern businessman encountering near-medieval strangeness. The framing/flashback device serves to accentuate the film’s dreamlike aspects.

Roberto Maldera as Jovan
There's nothing better than a good stake after
a hard day of vourdalak hunting.
Where the film excels is not so much the bloody action scenes but rather the quieter interludes between the blood and gore: Nicola’s first walk through the woods accompanied by strange cries and moans; the alarmed forest animals fleeing in the wake of the witch as she roams about; the menacing grimace of patriarch Gorca as he returns from his witch hunt; Nicola slowly backing away in fright and confusion from the lovely Sdenka, whom he now believes to be a vourdalak.

Typical of eurohorror of the period, there is the requisite blood and gore. Some of it works, some doesn’t. The camera lingers too long on Jovan’s staking of Gorca through the chest. Similarly, each time a vourdalak is dispatched, seconds tick by as we’re treated to an excruciating close-up of the creature’s face as blood pours from the eyes and its flesh dissolves.

One of the gorier scenes is the most effective. Upon returning to the house and finding that the entire clan has been turned into slavering vampires, Nicola tries to flee in his car. Irina’s mother Elena (Teresa Gimpera), now a hungry monster, grabs the driver’s side door before he can shut it. They play a desperate game of tug of war before Nicola manages to slam the door on her hand, severing most of her fingers. Undaunted, the vampire woman laughs maniacally as she stabs the car window repeatedly with the bloody stump of her hand.

The effects were the work of Carlo Rambaldi, who would later become famous for creating the far gentler E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). Manuel Berenguer’s cinematography is generally competent, especially with the interior scenes, where he manages to create a creepy, shadowy atmosphere in the candle-lit old house. However, in many of the exterior scenes, the obvious day-for-night photography undercuts the supernatural ambience.

Teresa Gimpera as Elena
Elena is out for a late night snack

Director Giorgio Ferroni had done horror before, contributing something of a minor classic, the creepy and atmospheric Mill of the Stone Women (1960), to the Eurohorror canon. However, he was better known for the spate of sword and sandal and spaghetti western pictures he made in between the horror films. Similarly, up to that time Gianni Garko’s experience was in westerns and costume epics, with an occasional spy thriller thrown in the mix. Agostina Belli was a little more experienced in the horror genre, having recently appeared in Scream of the Demon Lover (1970) and the giallo The Fifth Cord (1971) leading up to her gig in Night of the Devils.

In Jonathan Rigby’s comprehensive treatment of European horror films, Euro Gothic: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema (Signum Books, 2016), the author offers a fairly lengthy analysis of Night of the Devils, and wraps it up with a compliment:
“Ferroni’s crescendo of paranoid horror is splendidly sustained, and the film itself -- bolstered by Giorgio Gaslini’s excellent score and Manuel Berenguer’s delicate Scope photography -- is ripe for reappraisal as a small classic of Italian horror.” (p.248)
Where to find it: Rent or buy from Amazon. It's also available through Kanopy - check your local library for availability.

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