Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Night of the Devils

1972, Italy/Spain, Directed by Giorgio Ferroni
Colour, Running Time: 93 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, Region A, Raro Video; Video: 2.39:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS HD-MA Mono

This once very obscure Italian/Spanish film (titled at source as La Notte dei Diavoli) is based on the 'wurdulak' legend - a vampiric creature originating, I believe, from either European or Russian mythology, who returns from the grave to sacrifice loved ones, bringing them into the netherworld, in order to combat the loneliness of limbo death. In the film a man (driven insane, Lovecraft-style, and recalling the tale in flashback) crashes his car when he believes he sees an elderly woman crossing the vehicle's path, someone who is nowhere to be seen when he emerges from the damaged motor. Wandering off in search of help that can't initially be found he discovers a local man who, after an amiable discussion, offers to let him stay at his house for the night. There he finds a family in the midst of perpetual fear as each evening a recently deceased family member returns to the building to summon them. The dead person seeks company in its lonely ethereal world paradoxically by killing those loved during life, and our protagonist finds himself apparently unable to escape this increasingly threatening and supernaturally plagued environment.
Bearing strong similarities to the vampire legend (along with elements of zombie lore), the myths of the wurdulak have largely been ignored in cinema (arguably a missed opportunity, as there is a tragic richness to the concept), with one prior notable exception: Mario Bava's classic Black Sabbath (I Tre Volti Della Paura), where the tale occupied one third of the anthology structure (with Boris Karloff). Very effectively and artistically shot was the Bava film, unsurprisingly for anyone who's seen any of his other work, and Night of the Devils, directed by the lesser known Ferroni, understandably has a lot to live up to. Ferroni did, however, a decade or so before this shoot the Gothic delight that was Mill of the Stone Women and could be considered already qualified with such territory. Proceeding in a slow and solemn fashion Night of the Devils may struggle to keep many shaky-cam-weaned teens awake, and perhaps a shake-up in the pace department would have been of benefit, but what it lacks in urgency it makes up for in sinister, supernatural ambience. The fact that it's also punctuated by occasional gore - quite heavy for the period - and a grisly disintegrating head effect is of no great disadvantage either! The grim house in which Nikolas becomes trapped is enshrouded by an air of doom as the whole family lives in terror of the regularly returning 'corpse', and the city man's inability to escape builds on this fear of the otherworldly. Eventually (and I do mean eventually!) the tension really picks up and finally pays off to an extent, as the escape attempt comes under repeated attack from the increasing number of wurdulaks, giving Night of the Living Dead a run for its rotting flesh. This great climax really strengthens the preceding sombre and plodding nature, but there is a further bonus in the slightly ambiguous angle of the conclusion itself. This adds a potentially different take on what has been remembered in Nikolas's flashback. The score is a mixed bag - the theme tune itself tends to irritate (depending on personal taste of course - some viewers seem to love it), thankfully only being used two or three times, whilst elsewhere the incidental soundtrack is suitably spooky. Composer Giorgio Gaslini was known for creating music for quite a few Italian cinema titles, most notably though his contributions to the Deep Red soundtrack.

The film was once virtually impossible to find on home video formats (although of note, there was a soundtrack CD available in Italy) - it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and the Euro horror crowd (of which I am one) in particular should be appreciative of any such release. Raro Video (their US arm) have struck a new high definition transfer for this Blu-ray and it is sumptuous. Detail is advanced over anything standard definition can produce in a delicate fashion, rather than looking overly sharp. Everything is clear and the photography of the original material (undertaken by the highly experienced Manuel Berenguer of La Residencia fame) can truly be appreciated for the work of beauty that it is. I was particularly enamoured with the lush autumnal colour palette evident throughout, and seeing the film this way actually helps one to accept the slower pace of the story - there is time to soak up the visuals, a benefit lost in much of today's kinetic film-making. Raro have done a sterling job with the picture, and struck a major point for fans of European horror. Not only that, but you get a loss-less choice of the English or Italian language tracks, with optional English subtitles available - I would urge experiencing Night of the Devils in Italian if you do not suffer an aversion to reading dialogue while you're watching a film. There's also a lively five minute introduction to the film by Fangoria's editor, who delivers a charismatic contextualisation of the movie alongside personal opinion, plus a half hour interview with composer Gaslini, who comes across as very old-school Italian if I may say so! There's a nicely designed booklet contained in the package (though I did notice a few small mistakes in this, to be pedantic) and the case is enclosed within a slipcover. Raro have given a near-lost classic of Euro Horror a fantastic release that many other companies should aspire to as more and more of these mouth-watering titles gradually appear on Blu-ray. A collector's dream.

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