Though he had been directing features since the 1930s, Italian auteur Giorgio Ferroni is probably best known on these shores for his 1960 gothic opus THE MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (Il mulino delle donne di pietra). Although the surreal and creepy film, which got a prominent U.S. theatrical release, was bold for its time, twelve years later, Ferroni was given far more creative freedom, especially in the visceral sense with his 1972 masterpiece NIGHT OF THE DEVILS (La notte dei diavoli), based on Russian writer Aleksei Tolstoy’s novelette “Sem'ya vurdalaka”. Rarely seen in the United States, Raro Video thankfully delivers the goods, as NIGHT OF THE DEVILS becomes available here on Blu-Ray disc (as well as standard DVD).
Out in the woods, a young Italian businessman (Gianni Garko, VENGEANCE IS MINE) who looks like he’s been to hell and back, collapses from exhaustion alongside a stream. He ends up in a psychiatric hospital not knowing his name or who he is, but the doctors observing him believe he intensely fears something. A beautiful young woman named Sdenka (Agostina Belli, SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER) visits him, identifying the man as “Nikola”, but he goes absolutely bonkers at the sight of her, ending up in a straight jacket. Secured and in bed, we learn Nikola’s back story as he recalls the events through his obviously traumatized psyche.
As the unmanageable incident of Nikola goes, he’s seen driving along in a rural area of Yugoslavia. Attempting to avoid a woman in the middle of the road, he swerves off, wrecking his car in the process. While trekking off on foot, he witnesses two men, Gorca Ciuvelak (William Vanders, THE DAMNED) and his oldest son Jovan (Roberto Maldera, THE EVELYN CAME OF THE GRAVE) burying Gorca’s brother. Not able to repair his automobile immediately, Nikola is invited to stay the night at the roomy yet isolated Civelak cottage, also inhabited by the deceased brother’s much younger widow Elena (Teresa Gimpera, HANNAH, QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES), her two young children (the daughter is played by Cinzia De Carolis, later memorable as the teenage neighbor tease in Margheriti’s CANNIBAL APOCOLYPSE), as well as Gorca’s other adult children; Sdenka and a younger son. While no one else resides in the area, the family refuses to leave the secluded region, but they totally fear going out after sunset, something they strongly impose upon Nikola. The family reveals its eccentricities, with Jovan forcing himself on his late uncle’s wife out of a need for a stubborn rite of passage, as well as the Ciuvelaks’ overall antiquated style of living. But when the patriarchal Gorca leaves the house to destroy a wandering witch (who has already bled her hand over his brother’s burial place), his loved ones are convinced they must destroy him if he doesn’t return at a certain hour, and if they detect any disconcerting “change” in his persona.
To reveal any more of the plot to the uninitiated would not be fair, as the film is filled with parts solely meant to shock via graphic depictions of comic book horror, as well as an unforgettable NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD-inspired climax and a twist ending. NIGHT OF THE DEVILS is an integral part of the early 1970s Euro horror boom; evenly paced, magnificently photographed by Spanish cinematographer Manuel Berenguer, hauntingly scored (accompanied by some velvety female singing) by Giorgio Gaslini and stylishly directed by Ferroni — the outcome being a very lurid fairytale for mature adults. The film pulls no punches at exploiting the more liberal 1970s cinematic mentality by opening up with such eye-popping images (coming from the wired-up cranium of Nikola in a possible homage to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) as maggot-infested skulls, groped female bodies, exploding heads and the removal of a pulsating, bloody heart. These are not only an illustration of a damaged mind, but also a display of what the filmmakers were allowed to get away with at the time, and the results are all the more fascinating for it.
NIGHT OF THE DEVILS is based on the same vampire/witch story which was the basis for the “Wurdulak" segment of Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology BLACK SABBATH. Although NIGHT doesn’t have a performer as grand and iconic as Boris Karloff to terrify as the returning undead family patriarch (Vanders is rather ordinary in the role, but in his defense, his character is not central to the overall story), the film does expand upon the original source as to blend modern elements with traditional gothic (the Ciuvelak’s style of dress and their quant cottage makes it seem as if they’re existing in a previous century, though the film very much takes place in 1972). Unlike most of the vampire films of the period, the undead creatures here don’t sport fangs, but they maintain a pasty zombie-like persona and laugh devilishly at their victims, who more often than not are their own kin (the sight of a monstrous girl attacking her own mother for blood is quite unsettling).
One of the factoring components of NIGHT OF THE DEVILS is the special make-up effects by Carlo Rambaldi (who sadly, passed away in August, 2012). Rambaldi was sort of a household name due to his creation of such mainstream creatures in KING KONG (76’), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and E.T., but more importantly, he lent his carnage-creation wizardry to such Italian horror classics as A WOMAN IN A LIZARD’S SKIN, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, BLOOD FOR DRACULA and DEEP RED. Rambaldi’s talents are on full display here, and the camera’s zoom lens has no problem gawking at the slowly decomposing corpses, flesh tearing, extremity ripping, as well as those vividly open vampire attack wounds (his intensifying of the climatic “escape” of the hero with graphic gore makes for one of the most memorable sequences of this type).
Never released on home video in the United States (and mostly screened here in the past through bootlegs), NIGHT OF THE DEVILS was rumored to be in the DVD works through Image Entertainment’s “Euro Shock Collection” a decade ago, but that never materialized. Raro DVD proves it was worth the long wait for this excellent Blu-ray disc, which is an absolute must for European horror fans. The film is presented in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The source print is in near perfect condition, and anyone who has suffered through grey market renditions of the film will be delighted at the fantastic quality here, with the bright colors and smooth detail to prove it. The excellent sounding DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio is offered in both English (with the voice artists doing some heavy Yugoslavian accents) and Italian with optional English and German subtitles.
Extras include a video introduction from Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, who discusses the film's appeal and place in Euro horror history, as well as its “psychedelic” style. Composer Gaslini sits down for a 30+ minute interview where he talks about his jazz training, his work on this film and other Italian scores (including Argento’s DEEP RED) and he recreates pieces from the DEVILS score with his piano keys. The interview is all in Italian with English subtitles (and there are some awkward moments when the interviewer gets temperamental with him for seemingly no good reason). Alexander also writes liner notes for the full color insert booklet insert, which also contains some transcribed interview bits with Gaslini. (George R. Reis)
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