Nov 1, 2014
Indubitably, no Halloween is complete without at least watching one Guido horror flick, preferably of the vintage Gothic sort, whether it be a cultivated Golden Age classic from Mario Bava like Black Sunday (1960) or one of Godfather of Gore Lucio Fulci’s gorgeously grotesque pseudo-American films like The House by the Cemetery (1981). Indeed, like the krauts long before them during the German expressionist period, Italians certainly know how to bring art, atmosphere, angst, and foreboding anticipation to a typically disposable genre that prides itself on cheap thrills, senseless sensationalism, and soulless sex, among other things. While any self-respecting Italian horror fan knows the works of Mario and Lamberto Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Ruggero Deodato, and Michele Soavi, as well as the strikingly less talented exploitation filmmakers like exploitation-oriented pornographer Joe D'Amato and Umberto ‘Cannibal Ferox’ Lenzi, some rather talented wop filmmakers have been inexplicably forgetten, with Giorgio Ferroni (Calvin Jackson Padget aka Calvin J. Padget) being a perfect example, which might partially have to do with the fact that his formative years were spent working for a now less than fashionable authoritarian regime that fashionable Guido commie filmmakers of the late 1960s and early 1970s like Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini would most certainly disapprove of. Notably, Ferroni got his start in filmmaking during the fascist period when he made Mussolini-sanctioned documentaries and pro-war propaganda films like The Thrill of the Skies (1940) aka L'ebbrezza del cielo, which is about a group of young pilots who construct a glider, travel to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, kick ass for Franco, and come home to receive warm receptions by the populous of their home city of Asiago due to their heroic Bolshevik-bombing efforts. After World War II, Ferroni temporarily dabbled in neorealism before working in swords-and-sandals films and finding some commercial success in a series of spaghetti westerns he directed starring Giuliano Gemma, but he is best remembered today, if at all, for two rather aesthetically pleasing and absurdly atmospheric gothic horror flicks, Mill of the Stone Women (1960) aka Il mulino delle donne di pietra and his penultimate work The Night of the Devils (1972) aka La notte dei diavoli, with the latter being my personal favorite of the two.
Only available in bootleg form in the United States and most of the rest of the world until relatively recently when it was released by the Italian label RaroVideo on DVD and Blu-ray in 2013, The Night of the Devils is an almost-avant-garde vampire flick revolving around a man who becomes more or less insane after encountering a peasant that is haunted by a vampire-witch hybrid with the plot being partly based on the Gothic novella The Family of the Vourdalak (1884) aka The Wurdulak by Russian poet/novelist Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy, who was the novelist’s second cousin). Of course, Ferroni updated the story, adding gore and other grotesque imagery, bushy goombah beavers, horrendous 1970s wardrobes and haircuts, and even hallucinogen-inspired psychedelic imagery. Featuring a nonlinear narrative structure that would give Quentin Tarantino an even bigger hard-on than tall Nordic women’s large feet and featuring an eerie and highly complementary original musical score by one-time Michelangelo Antonioni composer Giorgio Gaslini (La Notte, Deep Red), The Night of the Devils is an unequivocally unjustly forgotten masterpiece of Guido horror that reminds one why Italians were most certainly the true masters of European, and largely international, horror during the post-WWII era.
Opening with a psychedelic red and turquoise title screen comparable to that of Juan López Moctezuma’s The Mansion of Madness (1973) and set to the strangely melodic yet haunting sounds of Gaslini, The Night of the Devils then cuts to the lead protagonist Nicola (Gianni Garko, who is best known as the eponymous protagonist of the countless Sartana spaghetti westerns and who also starred in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 proto-Holocaust classic Kapò), who is all bloody and broken, collapsing in the countryside, and from there a hallucinatory dream-sequence proceeds that includes a skull with maggots crawling in its eye socket, a faceless man feeling the mighty bush and ample bosoms of a faceless woman, a man having his face blown off with a shotgun, and two sinister dudes sporting cloaks and skull masks performing a seemingly Satanic ritual on an unclad babe inside a jail cell. From there, the viewer learns that Nicola is institutionalized and the doctors cannot figure out who he is or where he came from because he is either a mute, simply refuses to talk, or has lost the ability to speak due to fear, with the latter ultimately being the reason for the character’s unnerving speechlessness. Meanwhile, a beauteous young redhead named Sdenka (Agostina Belli of Edward Dmytryk and Luciano Sacripanti’s curious 1972 cult item Bluebeard and Dino Risi’s The Career of a Chambermaid (1976)) arrives at the loony bin and reveals to the head doctor that Nicola is a lumber importer who she met a week ago and swooned over. When Nicola sees Sdenka and she warmly states “it’s me…it’s your Sdenka,” he becomes so gripped by fear and panic that he manages to escape the grasp of two orderlies and runs away despite the fact he is wearing a straightjacket. Not long after Nicola is strapped to a hospital bed and given a sedative, Sdenka magically disappears from the hospital without a trace, though she leaves behind an empty purse (why she does this is never answered). From there, the film flashes back to the weekend before and depicts how Nicola went from being a suave, super bourgeois businessman to a semi-vegetable that lives in a permanent state of fear.
While heading to the Yugoslavian border in his luxury automobile, Nicola almost hits a stunning young dame, but manages to swerve his car out of the way at the last minute, thus causing him to crash. With his car out of commission, Nicola heads through the woods where he encounters gigantic black hogs but not a single person, not even the mysterious woman that he almost hit, though a seemingly unsavory hick named Jovan (Roberto Maldera) sees him. Jovan and his equally uneasy and seemingly haunted ‘father’ Gorca Ciuvelak (Bill Vanders of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 high-camp Third Reich melodrama The Damned and Lucio Fulci’s 1969 erotic pre-giallo Perversion Story aka Una sull'altra) are burying the latter’s forsaken brother whose body is wrapped in a blood-soaked white sheet. Gorca eventually tracks Nicola down, tells him about his dead brother, and warns him to stay out of the woods, especially after dark, and offers him room and board at his house. When Nicola enters the seemingly ancient Ciuvelak home, he is taken aback by the fact that the family members immediately board up their windows and doors and seem to be hiding some imperative fact from him. While eating dinner with the family, Jovan comes down and explains to Nicola that he has training as a mechanic and will help him fix his car the next day. At dinner, Nicola also meets lovely Sdenka, the same girl who caused him to crash his car and will become a figure of demonic torment for him only a week later. As it turns out, Jovan has been carrying on a secret affair with his father’s dead brother’s wife Elena (Teresa Gimpera Víctor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) aka El espíritu de la colmena). It is also revealed when Jovan and Gorca talk in secret that a centuries old curse plagues the family involving a woods witch (Maria Monti of Massimo Dallamano’s masterful 1972 What Have You Done to Solange? and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 botched comsymph epic 1900 aka Novecento) who kills people and turns them into flesh-eating vampire-zombies that have a thirst primarily for their own loved ones.
The next day, patriarch Gorca decides to go end the family curse for once and all by driving a super large stake through the witch bitch’s cold black heart, but his son Jovan warns him that he could destroy the entire family and that if he does not get back by 6 pm, he will personally drive a stake through his heart. While talking to one of Elena’s prepubescent daughters, Nicola learns about the family curse and Gorca’s plan to end it by killing the witch, who sleeps in a barn and resembles a black magic-inclined gypsy zombie. While Gorca comes back home early with proof of his success in the form of a dismembered human hand wrapped inside a gypsy-style scarf, things are much darker than they seem. When he sees someone lurking outside near the window of the children’s room that night and alerts Jovan, he accuses the guest of drinking too much Euro-hick moonshine. That night, Nicola consummates his lurid love affair with Sdenka in what will ultimately be the first and last time they make love. The next day, Jovan fixes Nicola's car and everything seems to be looking up, at least until Elena’s daughter reveals that Gorca has taken her sister Irina (Cinzia De Carolis of Argento’s 1971 flick The Cat o' Nine Tails and Antonio Margheriti’s 1980 flick Cannibal Apocalypse) into the woods. As it turns out, Gorca was indeed turned into one of the undead zombie-vampire beasts and only pretended to have killed the witch while under the spell of said bitch witch. When Gorca gets back without Irina, he rips off the old man’s shirt and reveals that his chest is rotted out, so the prodigal son drives a stake into his undead daddy’s heart just as Nicola walks in. Nicola tries to stop Jovan, but he is too late and is soon all the more horrified when he sees Gorca’s face cave in and completely rot within seconds, thus revealing that he is not quite human. That night Elena finds her daughter Irina but the little girl is now an undead ghoul and soon takes a bite out of her mom’s neck, rips off her shirt, and claws at her tender tits as if she is on the brink of performing some atavistic breastfeeding routine.
Meanwhile, Nicola has already left the woods to pick up his lumber, but he decides to stop by a Catholic church where he talks to a disgraced military man named Brigadier Kovachich who reveals to him regarding the creatures that have cursed his beloved Sdenka’s family that they are, “incorporeal material creatures. Something like the notes of […] music. It’s the terror of silence on which they feed, the terror of loneliness. They kill others primarily because they want company, especially those persons they happened to be in love with. And their victims search for their own company. A never-ending chain of death unless one can break a link.” Needless to say, Nicola heads back to the woods to save his darling forest nymph Nicola, but when he sees her and notices blood on her neck, he assumes the worst. After Sdenka reveals that Elena has turned the rest of the family into flesheaters in what is ultimately one fucked up family affair, Nicola decides to make a run for it, but he once again wrecks his car. Of course, members of the extended zombie-vampire family take turns clawing at Nicola and he manages to kill them off one-by-one in rather grotesque ways. Flash forward a week later and Sdenka visits him one night in his room at the nut ward. Naturally, Nicola runs for his life and manages to dispose of his straightjacket in the process. When Sdenka finally finds him and corners him in a cremation room while declaring her undying love, Nicola arms himself with a large metal rod and proceeds to impale her with it. Ultimately, The Night of the Devils ends rather cynically and makes the viewer wonder whether Nicola took one-too-many hits of acid and suffered from sort of mental break.
If an intemperate Hightalian with a love of big bushes, psychedelic drugs, and Victorian gothic horror attempted to remake Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) in the Italian countryside, albeit minus the neo-vaudevillian Semitic slapstick routines, it might begin to describe the marvelously macabre majesty of Ferroni’s unfortunately unsung horror masterpiece The Night of the Devils. Indeed, while it might seem far-fetched considering the obscurity of the film in the United States, it is hard for me to believe that Raimi did not see Ferroni’s film and use it as a sort of embryonic blueprint for The Evil Dead. Notably, horror maestro Mario Bava was the first to adapt Tolstoy’s novella as the second segment of his classic Gothic omnibus film Black Sabbath (1963) aka I tre volti della paura starring Boris Karloff, Susy Andersen, and Mark Damon, but it is not nearly as penetrating, subversive, and idiosyncratic, though it is certainly a classic piece of creepy gothic guido celluloid in its own right. Indeed, it is a work created during the intermediate period of Italian horror after the influence of Bava and before the rise of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (in)famous arthouse shocker Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and the unwaveringly brutal ultra-violent and nihilistic works of genre extremists like Fulci and Deodato. The only film that I think is even remotely comparable to Ferroni’s fetishistic piece of foul filmic flesh is Elio Petri’s counter-culture-tinged quasi-avant-garde (anti)ghost story A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) aka Un tranquillo posto di campagna starring Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave, as both films are semi-experimental and somewhat sensual works that are set in a haunting rural environment and center around a blonde Nordic-like Guido who loses his sanity after encountering feminine supernatural elements. The Night of the Devils is also notable for being a rare masterful piece of Italian (anti)folk horror. Despite being directed by a lapsed fascist filmmaker, Ferroni’s film depicts a depopulated wasteland in which its handful of survivors are so hopelessly backwards that they do not know what television is, do not own phones or cars, engage in quasi-incest, and blame all their troubles on their seemingly perennial work unions and mega-bitchy woods-dwelling witches, with the inter-familial bloodsucking being of both the literal and figurative sort. Needless to say, The Night of the Devils is a cynical, pessimistic, and deranging work that manages to capture the spirit of its zeitgeist in a seamless and subtle esoteric sort of way that is anything but polemical and unsurprisingly directed by a man who lived through the fascist era to see Italy degenerate into a virtual overseas brothel of America and a socially chaotic nation on the brink of civil war as agitated by student revolutionaries and Marxist terrorists. Arguably more so than the arthouse works of enfant terrible arthouse auteurs like Pasolini, Bertolucci, and Bellocchio, 1970s goombah horror flicks act as a sort of exaggerated primal expression of the Guido volksgeist. After all, what better way to reach the so-called proletariat than the innately irrational horror genre?!
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 6:55 AM
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