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Friday, March 15, 2013

Night of the Devils (1972) review


Gianni Garko (Nicola), Agostina Belli (Sdenka), Mark Roberts (Jovan), Cinzia de Carolis (Irena), Teresa Gimpera (Elena), William Vanders (Gorca Ciuvelek), Umberto Raho (Dr. Tosi), Luis Suarez (Vlado), Maria Monti (The Witch)

Directed by Giorgio Ferroni

The Short Version: This is underrated Italian filmmaker Giorgio Ferroni's modern day take on the Tolstoy tale that served as inspiration for Mario Bava's 50 minute 'The Wurdulak' segment from BLACK SABBATH (1963). If you're familiar with it, then you know how this 90 minute version plays out, but not without some differences. Well known for his Euro westerns, Gianni Garko essentially essays the same role Mark Damon held in Bava's interpretation. Marked by flashes of graphic gore and a palpable sense of dread, Ferroni's last horror film (he only did two) is remarkably tense and suspenseful in places despite jettisoning the Gothic ambiance that made Bava's version so memorable. A suitably cruel sting in the tail closes out this obscure, highly recommended, and forgotten gem of 70s European horror cinema.

On his way to a business deal to procure lumber for his company, Nicola takes a shorter route through a thickly wooded area and ends up in a car accident after a mysterious woman runs out in front of him. Searching the increasingly dense woods for help, he finds an isolated farmhouse owned by Gorca Ciuvelek, where he lives with his family. Refusing to help with the darkness closing in, Gorca offers Nicola a room for the night. During dinner, Nicola notices a lot of tension and fear between the family members regarding a curse on the lineage and a mysterious witch that lives somewhere out in the woods.

The name Giorgio Ferroni isn't one that's bandied about much in cult film circles. Of his known filmography, the films that always get the bulk of the attention are his westerns and Sword and Sandal pictures. He did only two horror pictures -- one of them has been fairly well known amongst genre aficionados, while the other, the one being reviewed here, has been obscure for many years and only available via bootleg outlets till recently.

The period of Ferroni's directorship that is of most interest is a twelve year stretch between 1960 and 1972. His works before and (the one) after are not as well known, or accessible outside of Italy. What's interesting to note is that his first film of special mention was a horror film (MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN [1960]) and his last -- the horror film NIGHT OF THE DEVILS from 1972.

Things kick off with a solemn and soothing cue from composer Giorgio Gaslini (DEEP RED) setting a tone that hints at dark romanticism. There's very little romance here, but what's here is treated in the darkest horror styling possible. This main theme is used generously throughout and serves the same purpose as the equally lighter toned main themes of such extremely violent Euro horror pictures like MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980).

From there the film follows our main protagonist Nicola, (Nicolas in the dubbed version) noticeably shaken from some major ordeal. In shock, he's taken to a hospital leading to a bizarre hallucinatory sequence packed with gore (a face is blasted away by gunshots and a heart is ripped out) and some graphic nudity where a naked woman lies on a slab while two characters wearing skull masks apparently mean to do her harm. This is all in Nicola's head, of course, and the bulk of the movie details the horrifying events that have brought him to this point.

NIGHT OF THE DEVILS is essentially a retelling of Aleksey Tolstoy's 'The Wurdulak', which was most famously adapted in Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963). Ferroni's movie stays faithful to Bava's interpretation of the tale (even replicating some classic shots from Bava's rendition), but transplants the action to modern times as opposed to a period setting. The Gothic, dark fairy tale ambiance of Bava's version is also jettisoned in favor of a growing sense of dread deep within an oppressively dense forest. However, it does display a striking parallel between tradition and modernization; and not just as a reflection of the real world, but also of the changing trends in genre cinema as well.

The script draws a fine line between superstition and reality; between a burgeoning modern society and those who prefer to live in the past, sticking to old traditions and values. These (anti) social mechanics also stretch out into the world of religion -- those who believe and those who do not. Ironically enough, having faith and believing in the palpable threat of evil to be able to conquer it doesn't guarantee salvation as the cruel twist at the end attests.

This clash of times and traditions begins almost immediately once Nicola discovers the Ciuvelek family dwelling deep in the woods, far from the modernity of the concrete forests of industrialized cities. Clearly by the films opening and that Nicola drives a car, it's obvious the time is the 1970s. Yet, you'd never know from the way this family lives. They've not heard of a television, nor do the children recognize such words as 'disease'. They're seemingly living in a bubble; a state not too far removed from the medieval era setting of Bava's take on this tale.

It's also of interest that NIGHT OF THE DEVILS can be viewed as a filmic clash between the dying Gothic era horror film and the much more blatantly graphic, gore-drenched horror theatrics that took over in the 1970s. Mario Bava, for instance -- his 60s films had a quality about them that was missing in his 70s works. BARON BLOOD (1972) was an attempt at re-capturing the feel of the previous decade. Ferroni's movie makes a case for tradition, but ultimately accepts the conventions horror was embracing at this time and does so with an artistic flavor lacking in other Euro horror films of this time period.

Back to the culture clash of DEVILS, we learn that there were others that lived in these woods, but they left for life in the city. Unlike those others mentioned, the patriarch Gorca refuses to leave his home. But instead of being afraid of abandoning tradition, it's to eradicate a supposed family curse brought on by his now dead brother. Once welcomed into their home, Nicola, exceedingly curious of this out of time family, questions why the other woodland dwellers moved away. The elder son Jovan (who frequently clashes with his fathers reasoning) states that the younger generation fled because they only want money, finding it undesirable to work hard for ones earnings. This is as political as this movie gets, yet that statement does speak fervently on the subject of elder generational work ethic versus what was the modern era of the time.

The Wurdulak itself (not even called by name till past the hour mark) takes the form of a witch that wanders around in the woods during the daytime and especially the night. Where she comes from is not known, but she is the source of the horror in the film. There's some great moments that foreshadow the terror ahead such as a bit where Nicola asks why the windows are boarded up. He attempts to open one after dark and Sdenka becomes excited, begging him to leave it locked. Horror movie protocol dictates that whatever measures you take to keep something out is only going to last for so long.

The violence is strong and the gore (by Carlo Rambaldi) is splashy and generous at times. Some of these scenes are pervasively gruesome; particularly a murder committed by a child. Again, if you've seen Bava's interpretation of the story, you will have an idea of how this film plays out. The gore is well done for the most part, yet limitations of the time are evident in a few shots. Rambaldi created, among other things, dismemberments, bloody impalements and decomposing bodies for the camera to lovingly caress with its zoom lens. The performances are also believable across the board.

Gianni Garko might forever be associated with the sleuthing, trick gadget gunslinger of his famous Sartana character, but he tackles the role of Nicola with conviction. He spends the opening and closing sequences in either shock or a straight jacket, so the flashback segment of how he got to his mentally fractured state builds up to that. Outside of a scant few roles, Garko was mostly known for playing sardonic, TRINITY style gunmen in western productions, so this serious turn -- in a horror film no less -- is a welcome deviation from his familiar norm.

Garko's most well known roles among fans in the US would be a slew of Italian westerns. Among these are 1967s 10,000 DOLLARS FOR A MASSACRE (where he played a bounty hunting Django), THEY CALL HIM CEMETERY (1971) and his most popular, the aforementioned SARTANA (1968); a role he returned to in three official sequels. Garko also donned a bizarre, white colored, feathery get-up in MOLE MEN AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1961) and fought Steve Reeves in WAR OF THE TROJANS (1962), the sequel to Ferroni's classic THE TROJAN HORSE (1961). He also led the brigade of FIVE FOR HELL (1969) against the Nazis under the command of Klaus Kinski among other roles.

As for Ferroni, he is best known for his peplum sagas and westerns. For his Torch & Toga movies, he never showed interest for delving into the fantasy realm that represented the best and worst of the genre; instead his examples of the genre had a hand in the historical, as well as actual Greek mythology. His westerns encompassed just as many examples, including a trilogy of pictures all starring the charismatic, and wildly popular Giuliano Gemma. Ferroni's westerns were well made and filled with action and twisting plots, but were more in the American style of western as opposed to the barren wasteland of Leone's template.

With the release of MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960) showing Ferroni possessing a deft hand at handling horror, this restored release of NIGHT OF THE DEVILS (1972) reinforces that claim. Furthermore, both films showcase diametrically different styles of horror -- one is of the Bava school of atmospheric gloom and the other, while re-doing a story brought to cinematic life by Bava, tells the tale in a grim style that would personify Italian genre films of the 1970s. Ferroni's DEVILS is a wonderfully haunting, occasionally scary, and near seamless bridge between the fog enshrouded Gothics of the 1960s and the new approach that took over in the coming decade.

This review is representative of the Raro Video DVD.

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