Color, 1972, 89m.
Directed by Giorgio Ferroni
Starring Gianni Garko, Agostina Belli, Roberto Maldera, Cinzia De Carolis, Teresa Gimpera, William Vanders, Umberto Raho
Raro (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
When a traumatized, bloodied man (spaghetti western vet Garko) is pulled from a shallow river and taken to a nearby sanitarium, medical tests performed on him force his consciousness to remember the nasty events that brought him to such a sorry state. In flashbacks, the man (a character credited as Nicola but essentially nameless in the film) is left stranded in the woods in Eastern Europe when his car breaks down. He finds refuge at the home of a family living in a remote country house, where fear is in the air as everyone waits for the return of the patriarch, Gorca (Vanders), who's gone off to slay an evil woman terrorizing the countryside. Finally Gorca and the monstrous woman, a "wurdulak" who feeds on human blood, face off in the wilderness, but when Gorca returns home, he doesn't seem to be quite himself. Meanwhile Garko begins to fall for one of the beautiful daughters, Sdenka (Belli), while the other lady of the house (Gimpera) worries about the safety of her husband and two children. Of course, before the night is over, a monstrous evil will soon threaten them all.
If that synopsis sounds familiar to you Italian horror fans, well, it should; this inexplicably obscure early '70s horror offering is based on "The Wurdulak," the same Aleksey Tolstoy short story earlier adapted by Mario Bava as part of his classic 1963 terror anthology, Black Sabbath (with Boris Karloff playing Gorca). Of course, censorship standards had relaxed considerably since then, and while Bava was off spraying screens red with Bay of Blood, this expanded feature-length version of the story was undertaken by director Giorgio Ferroni, best known for the gothic cult favorite, Mill of the Stone Women. The film certainly starts off with a bang as Garko's medical tests are intercut with jagged shots of shotgunned faces, hearts torn from chest cavities, female nudity, and skulls festooned with maggots (most courtesy of FX maestro Carlo Rambaldi who had just worked on Lizard in a Woman's Skin), but that grotesque curtain raiser is a little misleading. The rest of the film is more of a macabre slow burner, building up a gradual sense of dread thanks to careful scope framing and eerie use of lighting and film speed to accentuate the growing supernatural menace within the family unit.
There are certainly some violent highlights -- a vampire's face collapsing in protracted detail, a few stakings, etc. -- but the most memorable passages are really triumphs of atmosphere rather than buckets of gore. The middle third of the film is particularly subdued, ratcheting up the tension slowly as the potential romance is counterbalanced with the family's insistence that they have to destroy the father of the household to save themselves. However, it's in the final ten minutes that the film really takes off, rewarding the viewer with a genuinely terrifying climax that departs completely from the earlier cinematic version. It's a truly spectacular payoff best experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible, and there's even a nasty little twist ending for good measure, too.
A solid actor who alternated his usual cowboy roles with occasional thrillers like Cold Eyes of Fear and The Psychic, Garko does a fine job of anchoring the film and gradually revealing hints of what led to his state of complete madness in the opening scene. He's helped along by a solid supporting cast, including fine turns by both of the gorgeous leading ladies, dark-haired Belli (who appeared in the Richard Burton version of Bluebeard the same year and does another nude scene here) and the blonde Gimpera, who had just appeared in the Spanish horror film Feast of Satan. Of course, perhaps the real scene stealers here are those two kids, especially little Cinzia De Carolis who had just starred in Dario Argento's The Cat o' Nine Tails and would later try to jump John Saxon in Cannibal Apocalypse. Finally, special mention must be made of the romantic, chilling music score by Giorgio Gaslini, a jazz musician famous for his incidental score for Argento's Deep Red (including that creepy lullaby) and the giallo So Sweet, So Dead; this is easily one of his best efforts, and the theme has become something of a staple on Italian film music compilations for decades (making the soundtrack actually more famous than the movie itself).
A gray market staple for many years, The Night of the Devils has primarily been seen by fans in copies made from the long unavailable Japanese VHS edition from the '80s. The very good English dub (which thoughtfully gives many of the characters semi-Slavic accents) was used for this uncut version, but the scope compositions were noticeably cropped. The Raro DVD marks the film's first official American release, and its legitimate availability at last should help bolster its reputation among those who have never seen it in prime condition. Of course, newcomers to Italian horror should find it pretty startling, too. Image quality is very good, with what appears to be accurate framing and very satisfying colors (including, of course, really rich reds). The disc defaults to the Italian-language version with optional subtitles in either English or German(!), but the English dub is included as well. The first option sounds quite good, and the subtitles aren't quite dubtitles; some scenes play out more or less exactly the same as the English track, while others have quite a few variations with a few extra lines of dialogue thrown in here and there, too. Unfortunately the English track isn't remotely as impressive; the music in particular sounds warbling and distorted, making it something of a chore to listen to for more than about 10 minutes at a time. Hopefully a better English audio source will be found by the time this hits Blu-Ray. The packaging indicates an original English trailer, but that's nowhere to be found. However, you do get two video extras; the first features Fangoria editor Chris Alexander (standing very, very close to the camera and apparently shot as a mirror reflection) enthusiastically talking about the film's participants and its history, while Gaslini gets a half-hour video interview in which he discusses his move from jazz to film scoring, his thoughts on this film, working with Argento on TV and film projects, and much more. It's presented in completely raw, unedited form with English subtitles, so you'll get occasional disruptions like someone moving a chair in front of the camera. Alexander also contributes some liner notes putting this in context with other '70s horror milestones of the period, and there's also a brief additional text q&a with Gaslini in which he calls this his greatest score. A fine, very underrated shocker with a terrific payoff at the end, and definitely recommended for Euro horror fanatics.