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Plot: two teen girls, one hot summer, a lifetime of blasphemy and heresy.

It was really Jean Rollin who paved the way for the French fantastique. Not by some grand design or clever promotion but rather the accident of circumstance. When The Rape of the Vampire (1968) hit cineplexes across the country it did so during the student riots, general - and worker strikes opposing the Charles de Gaulle administration. In other words, it was the only thing in town. However, It was the follow-up The Nude Vampire (1970) that would consolidate Rollin’s oneiric visual style. Suddenly every two-bit producer and director with a few spare francs and some croissants was scrambling to launch their own fantastique, erotic and otherwise, and follow Rollin’s lead. Of all the imitators that inevitably followed only three have stood the test of time: Mario Mercier, Bruno Gantillon and Joël Séria.

Whereas Mercier was a real-life shaman whose Erotic Witchcraft (1972) and A Woman Possessed (1975) felt more like occult rituals captured on celluloid rather than formal narratives; in contrast the careers of Gantillon and Séria followed a similar trajectory after a single horror outing. Both men transitioned into other more marketable genres before graduating into television. Gantillon had his mesmerizing Girl Slaves Of Morgana LeFay (1971) and Séria had his iconoclastic and irreverent Don’t Deliver Us From Evil. Also not unimportant was that that year saw the release of offerings as diverse as Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins Of Evil (1971), Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), the Belgian-Canadian co-production Daughters Of Darkness (1971), and the El Hombre Lobo breastacular The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971). If there ever was a year to premiere this sort of erotic horror, 1971 was the year of choice.

Coinciding with the witchcraft and Satanic Panic cycle of the seventies Joël Séria’s irreverent coming of age tale Mais nous ne délivrez pas du mal (or Don’t Deliver Us From Evil, internationally) isn’t merely a tale of the sexual awakening of two impressionable young girls under the guise of an occult horror. More than anything else it is a scathing and damning indictment of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, the laissez-faire attitude of the bourgeoisie and the injustices of the French social hierarchal system. Loosely inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder from New Zealand in 1954 and Séria’s memories of his own Catholic upbringing Don’t Deliver Us From Evil was banned in the Fifth Republic on charges of blasphemy and heresy. Séria’s debut feature was a fairytale that remains little seen outside of Eurocult circles and that’s a pity. Even 50 years after its original release it has lost none of its power. More importantly it was the French precursor to Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda (1977) and Fernando Di Leo’s widely misunderstood and incendiary satire To Be Twenty (1978) with commedia sexy all’Italiana lolitas Gloria Guida and Lili Carati. That Séria abhors Catholicism (who in the right mind could disagree with him?) should be fairly obvious as the title is a slight alteration from a line of the Pater Noster prayer.

Anne (Jeanne Goupil) and Lore (Catherine Wagener) are two post-pubescent Catholic schoolgirls living in the rural province of Anjou. Both are 14, neighbors and best friends, and both come from affluent, conservative, aristocratic families. Both are bored and confused with the hypocrisy they witness at their convent boarding school and within their own families. Anne’s parents are the Count de Boissy (Jean-Pierre Helbert) and the Countess (Véronique Silver) who have their own interests and leave her in the care of gardener Gustave (René Berthier). One night Anne reads erotic literature she stole from one of the nuns and the two girls solemnly vow that they will live their life together, in service of Satan, from now on. After a particular gloomy sermon from the local priest (Serge Frédéric) at mass the two denounce their faith, mock the clergyman, and begin their journey into wanton depravity. When Anne’s parents leave for a two-month holiday they sent her to live with Lore’s parents, monsieur Fournier (Henri Poirier, as Henry Poirier) and madame Fournier (Nicole Mérouze). United for the summer, the two are free to commit as much mischief as they could possibly want.

Anne reads the misanthropic, misotheistic poetic novel The Songs of Maldoror from Comte de Lautréamont and les filles initiate themselves in the dark arts. Anne begins torturing small animals, commencing with her pet cat and graduating into canary-poisoning and sparrow-strangulation. In those lazy, hazy days of summer the two girls explore their own sexuality, experiment with lesbianism, and the all-too-easy seduction of mentally challenged cowherd Émile (Gérard Darrieu). In lieu of getting what they want the two commit arson and when a motorist (Bernard Dhéran) turns the tables on them during a game of seduction the two take to cold blooded murder. Anne and Lore consecrate their union in a Black Mass ceremony wherein church artefacts are desecrated. When a commissioner (Jean-Daniel Ehrmann, as Jean Daniel Ehrmann) is assigned to investigate the case the girls fear that they will be separated. The two decide to commit one final act of defiance during the fall term school play. To a wildly enthusiastic audience the girls dramatically recite part of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers Of Evil before committing self-immolation in the ultimate act of mockery.

Understated. If there’s one to describe Don’t Deliver Us From Evil it’s that. Joël Séria is content to merely observe as the girls descent from youthful mischief into full-blown profanation and cold blooded murder. That Don’t Deliver Us From Evil is irreverent and iconoclastic is evident. The detached, documentary-like camerawork and quiet, folkish score serve brilliantly to create a false sense of security. It starts out like every other French coming of age feature and only the subtle hint here and there provide clues that not everything is what is it seems. There’s a whole lot more boiling beneath the surface, some of which becomes only clear upon multiple viewings. It dabbles in the general territory of Jean Rollin and Bruno Gantillon’s Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay (1971), but Don’t Deliver Us From Evil is wholly its own beast. The enduring ability of Don’t Deliver Us From Evil to shock audiences doesn’t lie so much in what it shows (it’s surprisingly low on both blood and gratuitous nudity) but rather in the profundity of its implications. Suggestion, when wielded in the right hands, is probably the most formidable weapon. Adding immensely to the overall ick and sleaze factor is that Jeanne Goupil and Catherine Wagener (21 and 19, respectively, at the time of filming) truly do look like unspoilt minors. The brunt of the nudity falls on Wagener, but Séria would have Goupil in a state of constant undress in his oddball romance Marie, the Doll (1975).

By 1971 France had been pervaded by existentialism by philosophers Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Simone de Beauvoir. In a post-World War II the movement rose to prominence as a response against Nazi despotism. Don’t Deliver Us From Evil arrived at just the right time to benefit from the lesbian hysterionics following Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, the advent of erotic vampire horror in continental Europe, the women’s liberation movement as well as the looser, permissive mores following the Summer of Love. The societal circumstances and socio-political climate were right for something like this to materialize. Joël Séria was a proverbial crusader hellbent on dismantling the French church and state.

We would be remiss to mention that Don’t Deliver Us From Evil immediately found its place in cult cinema history by being presented at the Directors' Fortnight, in parallel selection of the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and allegedly being banned the land of ‘Liberté‘ on grounds of blasphemy. The banning remains somewhat contentious as we weren’t able to find any substantial evidence to support said claim. Exposing the hypocrisy of the church is never a good idea anyway. With his following features Séria took to thoroughly dismantling the state and the French national identity. To do that with silly comedies of all things makes it all the more poignant. Obviously Séria had an axe to grind with his country, culture and traditions. If anything, without Don’t Deliver Us From Evil there would be no Vampyres (1974), no Satánico Pandemonium (1975) and certainly no Alucarda (1977). Not bad for a little shocker over half a century old.

Plot: businessman gets lost in the Yugoslavian wilds and encounters vampires.

The Night Of the Devils (or La notte dei diavoli back at home in Italy) is a minor entry in the continental European vampire horror canon at the dawn of the wicked and wild seventies. The basis for the screenplay was the 1884/1950 Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy novel The Family of the Vourdalak. Mario Bava had first adapted it in the ‘I Wurdulak’ segment of his Black Sabbath (1963) and now almost ten years later it was time for a more contemporary adaptation. Overall it leans closer to the understated dread of Damiano Damiani's The Witch (1966) than to the psychotronic exuberance and excess of Jean Rollin, Mario Mercier, Luigi Batzella or Renato Polselli. In more recent years Tolstoy’s story was faithfully adapted in the Crimean gothic Vurdalaki (2017).

With credits dating all the way back to 1936 director Giorgio Ferroni was a dyed-in-the-wool craftsman who had a solid, if mostly undistinguished, career in Italian genre cinema. True to form he did everything from spaghetti westerns and poliziotteschi to comedies and documentaries. What he seemed to excel at, however, were peplum and horror on a budget. In that capacity he directed the atmospheric little gothic Mill of the Stone Women (1960) (an underseen and underrated Italian sub-classic) and a slew of entertaining pepla, including but not limited to, The Trojan Horse (1961), Conquest of Mycene (1963) (with Rosalba Neri) and The Lion Of Thebes (1964). His most prestigious and widely seen features were probably his liberal adaptation of Euripides' classic tragedy The Bacchantes (1961) and the World War II epic The Battle of El Alamein (1969). Amidst the vampire horror craze of the early 1970s he contributed the minimalistic, anachronistic and quiet The Night Of the Devils. Produced by Eduardo Manzanos and featuring an ensemble cast of Italian veterans as well as special effects from Carlo Rambaldi The Night Of the Devils would be Ferroni’s last horror outing before his death in 1981. Another minor classic is hardly the worst way to go out.

Yugoslavia, 1972. On his way to a business appointment Italian lumber importer Nicola (Gianni Garko) takes a dusty road through some particularly thick woods wrecking his 1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé as he tries to avoid crashing into a mysterious woman. Forced to look for help in these unhospitable environs he happens upon a family of eccentric woodcutters sequestered away in a 19th century tenement somewhere in darker bowels of the deep woods. When he spots the world-weary Ciuvelak clan they are in the process of burying the recently deceased brother of patriarch Gorka (William Vanders, as Bill Vanders). As Nicola asks Gorka whether there’s any possibility of someone driving him to the nearest village for repairs the old man spouts an ominous warning about the woods not being safe whenever night falls. Gorka invites Nicola to stay overnight at the family homestead and continue his journey home the following day. In short order he meets Gorka’s wife Elena (Teresa Gimpera), eldest son Jovan (Roberto Maldera, as Mark Roberts), daughter Sdenka (Agostina Belli) as well as his cousins Irina (Cinzia De Carolis) and Mira (Sabrina Tamborra). The next morning Jovan commences repairs on Nicola’s car as Gorka announces that he’s going to hunt down the “living dead” witch (Maria Monti) that supposedly haunts the woods and has cursed the Ciuvelak clan with an unspecified malady. If he doesn’t return that same evening at 6 o’clock sharp they are to kill him with no questions asked.

That night Gorka does return to the homestead and comes bearing a severed hand as evidence for his slaying of the witch. As the hours pass Sdenka insinuates herself into Nicola’s chambers and Gorka spirits little Irina away into the blackness of night. The strangeness becomes almost too much to bear when Nicola is witness to Irina returning as one of the living dead and Jovan is forced to drive a stake through Gorka’s heart. As one by one members of the Ciuvelak fall victim to the curse of the living dead Nicola soon finds himself in a fight for life and limb as the clan descends upon the homestead. Bloodied and bewildered he manages to escape within an inch of life and somehow he’s able to navigate the woods. Exhausted from his ordeal Nicola passes out near an idyllic stream. He’s brought to the local mental ward where he’s examined by doctor Tosi (Umberto Raho) and before long law enforcement in the form of officer Kovacic (Renato Turi) wants to interrogate the vagrant in expensive attire. The physician informs the inspector that the man spends his nights peering out of the window, “looking into the darkness like a scared, cornered animal.” Shortly thereafter a beautiful woman introduces herself claiming she knows the wealthy foreigner. As the doctor takes the woman to see the man, he flees from his room in abject horror.

Ferroni managed to assemble quite the cast for this atmospheric little horror ditty. First and foremost, there’s peplum and spaghetti western veteran Gianni Garko. Garko was a mainstay in Italian pulp cinema that somehow always remained somewhat of a second-stringer. His credits, among many others, include the giallo The Flower with the Deadly Sting (1973), The Psychic (1977) as well as the German sex comedies Three Swedish Girls in Upper Bavaria (1977) and Summer Night Fever (1978). The lowest he had to go was with Alfonso Brescia’s craptacular space opera Star Odyssey (1979) and bounced back with Luigi Cozzi’s space peplum Hercules (1983). The other monument here is Umberto Raho. Raho was a pillar of peplum, spaghetti western and Eurospy. Raho had acted alongside two of Britains greatest imports. First with Barbara Steele in The Ghost (1963), Castle Of Blood (1964) and The Long Hair of Death (1965) and in between with Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964). Towards the end of the decade he acted alongside unsung Polish import Magda Konopka in the fumetti Satanik (1968). He was in the giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) from Dario Argento as well as Amuck (1972) from Silvio Amadio. Other noteworthy appearances include, among others, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) (with Erika Blanc) and the slightly deranged The Exorcist (1973) imitation Enter the Devil (1974) (with Lucretia Love and Stella Carnacina) from Mario Gariazzo.

Agostina Belli was one of the classic redhead belles that effortlessly alternated between mainstream fare, comedies and horror. As such she could be seen in the sugary sweet Romina Power-Al Bano musicarello period piece Symphony Of Love (1970), the horror Scream of the Demon Lover (1970), the giallo The Fifth Cord (1971), the Lucio Fulci sex comedy The Senator Likes Women (1972), Scent Of A Woman (1974) (the American remake with Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell and Gabrielle Anwar from 1992 was as soulless as it was unnecessary – but, god forbid, if the average American has to read subtitles on an import), The Career of a Chambermaid (1976), the amiable The Omen (1976) imitation Holocaust 2000 (1977), the period piece Manaos (1979) as well as the comedies Dear Wife (1982) and Go Ahead You That Makes Me Laugh (1982). Her strangest outing was perhaps the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) imitation The Brother from Space (1988) from the specialist in such things, Mario Gariazzo. The other illuminating presence is Teresa Gimpera, a reliable pillar in continental European pulp, who could be seen in Night of the Scorpion (1972), the gothic horror Crypt Of the Living Dead (1972), the Alfonso Brescia giallo Naked Girl Murdered in the Park (1972), the sex comedy Healthy Married Life (1974) and León Klimovsky's illicit The Last Man on Earth (1964) remake The People Who Own the Dark (1976).

What this most closely resembles are the two Mario Mercier features Erotic Witchcraft (1972) and A Woman Possessed (1975) as well as the American fantastique Blood Sabbath (1972) (with Dyanne Thorne, Susan Damante and amply endowed Swedish softcore porn star and sometime Russ Meyer muse Uschi Digard). Ferroni understands, perhaps better than anyone else, that less is always more. For this atmospheric, gothic-tinged horror he and director of photography Manuel Berenguer make full use of the sylvan location and the arboreal surroundings. It’s not a big leap from here to the naturalistic environs in which Jean Rollin frequently dabbled or something like Seven Women For Satan (1974) from Michel Lemoine. What little money there was, was obviously spent where it mattered. One year later León Klimovsky would use a similar premise for his The Vampires Night Orgy (1973), except there an entire town of vampires descended upon a travelling couple thrown together by circumstance. Amidst the deluge of gothic horror revivals, The Night Of the Devils was a sobering earthy and grounded affair with none of the supernatural overtones that more or less were the standard of the day. Instead it uses a sprawling natural environment to utmost effect and electrifying performances from Garko and Belli heighten the experience.

While arguably 1973 was the banner year for Italian gothic horror, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of this little talked about slice of Italian gothic pulp. For an Italian production it comes off as either very French or British, depending on your preference. If you’re looking for a low-key production that’s overflowing with atmosphere and not some extravagant special effects spectacle as, say, The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) (with Rosalba Neri) or The Dracula Saga (1973) (with Helga Liné, Betsabé Ruiz and Cristina Suriani), The Night Of the Devils will be right up your alley. What Night Of the Damned (1971) was to the giallo and what The Witches Mountain (1973) was to the Spanish fantastique and witchcraft horror, this is to the Italian gothic. This is a wonderfully understated feature that banks heavily on its natural surroundings to sell what otherwise is a patently ridiculous premise on its face. Just like Mill of the Stone Women (1960) twelve years earlier The Night Of the Devils is a boundlessly atmospheric and creaky gothic that manages to push all the right buttons and is custodian to exemplary performances from Gianni Garko and Agostina Belli. With the benefit of several decades of hindsight it’s near criminal that Giorgio Ferroni has gone down in history as a reliable but underappreciated second-stringer.