If there’s one thing that scary movies have taught us, it’s that if someone’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, asking the locals for help is a recipe for horrible things happening to the driver. Apparently this horror cliche transcends generations and borders, as this is the pivotal beginning of Giorgio Ferroni’s Italian horror cult classic The Night of the Devils, a film inspired by the tale The Wurdulac by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy.
But let’s jump back for a moment, since the movie does as well. It starts with a man named Nicola (Gianni Garko) staggering beaten and battered and bleeding through the woods into a field and falling unconscious by a river. He then turns up some time later in a mental hospital with trippy hallucinations of horrific acts of violence and naked women milling about. Nicola doesn’t speak, seemingly having suffered some sort of trauma, and the staff have no idea what happened or how he got there. A strange unknown woman arrives at the hospital claiming to know who he is, but when he meets her, he completely freaks out and has to be sedated. The woman then mysteriously disappears, leaving behind only an empty purse. It is at this point that we flash back to Nicola’s fateful vehicle troubles to find out how we got here.
The locals in question are a quiet and isolated family living in the countryside. We happen upon them burying the patriarch of the family and lamenting the influence of a witch living nearby on the preceding events. Said influence leads them to board up their home every night and not let anyone in after dark, no matter how much the person begs, even if it is a member of their own family. They fear a Wurdulac is in their midst, a vampire variant that only feeds on loved ones. Once bitten, the only recourse is to kill the victim outright or let them starve by denying them access to friends and family. Despite the similarities to vampires, apparently they can be killed by more standard means — being beaten, dismembered, impaled on mining picks, or shot seems to do just fine. Garlic, crosses, and wooden stakes to the heart optional.
It all starts out normal enough. The family takes in Nicola and offers to help him work on his car the following day. He’s quickly smitten with the lovely Sdenka (Agostina Belli), but respectfully makes no immediate advances, and is quite perturbed by the bizarre state of lockdown the house enters around dinner time. Nicola’s hosts are hospitable and show him no ill will, but also aren’t keen on explaining the situation in which he now finds himself.
The truth gradually trickles out one scene and revelation at a time, intertwined with continued efforts by the family to track down and kill the witch who inflicted the Wurdulac curse upon them, as well as growing interest between Sdenka and Nicola, and tension within the rest of the family as the eldest son Jovan (Roberto Maldera) attempts to assume a leadership role within the familial hierarchy that others feel he doesn’t deserve.
While the entire thing plays out in Italian with English subtitles (or, optionally, English with English or German subtitles), it’s not difficult to follow due to the relatively slow pace. However, that’s the point here — it’s not a movie about jump-out scares or excessive gore, it’s about not knowing anything more than the protagonist does and coming to terms with the situation in the same time as him. It builds the tension rather well over the course of the 91-minute run time, and while the acting (or overacting) occasionally borders on cheesy, those moments do no real harm in the grand scheme. Things start to snowball out of control quickly and Nicola finds himself on the run, which is right about where we came in. The story continues from that point, offering more answers and tying up any loose ends in the time that remains.
It was shot 41 years ago on 35mm film, so while the transfer to Blu-ray looks good, it’s debatable what you really gain by watching a decidedly low-def movie in a higher resolution, especially when the movie relies so little on visual effects. The original monaural track is modified to DTS 2.0 stereo, though it’s not clear this is a huge leap given the age of the source material. It looks and sounds just fine for a ‘70s flick, just don’t expect any miracles from a newer medium.
Special features include an interview with composer Giorgio Gaslini, and an intro to the film by Chris Alexander, Editor-in-Chief of Fangoria magazine, who is clearly an avid fan. I can’t say I was as exuberant about it as Chris was, but it was certainly worth a watch for fans of more cerebral horror or want to see what Europe was doing in the genre during the era when Vincent Price was at the top of his game, and Dracula, Frankenstein, and mummies were all the rage. Michael Myers and Leatherface were also borne out of this time period in America, though with a decidedly more slasher vibe than cerebral.
Overall I enjoyed The Night of the Devils, since it seems fewer movies today rely on tension and psychological manipulation than graphic violence or cheap scares. It’s a ‘70s horror flick, so expect blood that looks like red paint and cheap gore when it does appear. The appeal of the movie is in its slow, deliberate, drawn out revelation of the story, and that it does have a story, and an antagonist you have to learn about as you go.
It was worth the ride to experience what foreign horror looks and feels like and meet a monster slightly different from what I’m used to. The acting is decent, story interesting, and pacing well done. Getting an eye full of Agostina Belli was certainly a treat, as well. And yes, it was a better “vampire” love story than Twilight.
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