Plot: not everything is what it seems in this retirement home….
La Nuit de la Mort! (or Night Of Death! back at home, re-released in 1988 by Colombus Video as the more colorful Les Griffes de la Mort or The Claws Of Death to fully exploit the advent of the American slasher as a subgenre) is a quaint and often overlooked little oddity from that time the once-fertile French cult cinema landscape had been reduced to a barren desert. In just a few short years the fantastique had become, for all intents and purposes, a relic of a bygone era and the arrival of the American slasher as the logical (d)evolution from the old terror and suspense films was felt in the French countryside too. Night Of Death! breathed new life into an old formula by injecting it with what was popular at the time. Released the same year as Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), and Altered States (1980) history has failed to remember director Raphaël Delpard, unwittingly or otherwise, as the father of the French Extreme and Night Of Death! as the first of this violent new breed. Not bad for a barely remembered little French shocker made for next to nothing and starring nobody in particular. As recent as 17 April 2019 it was shown as part of the Cabinet des Curiosites section on the 12th edition of the Hallucinations Collectives, Le festival de l'Autre Cinéma at Cinema Comoedia in Lyon, France. Vive la France!
Raphaël Delpard’s charming (and only) excursion into pastoral horror arrived at an interesting time in French horror and fringe cinema at large. Jean Rollin was still active but the halcyon days of the female vampire were well and truly over. Instead of looking outward Delpard looked inward and with that put a new spin on an old formula. By taking the central conceit of, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963), and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) or that of Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973) and transporting it from the American heartland to the idyllic French countryside he could produce a horror on a miniscule budget and with no name-stars to speak of. Delpard was simultaneously trained in theater and puppeteering with Jean-Loup Temporal and worked as a screenwriter for Jean-Pierre Mocky. His other claim to fame is the comedy Les Bidasses aux Grandes Manoeuvres (1981) (an early role for future Hollywood star Jean Reno) and after perservering with cinema for a few years longer he reinvented himself as a multi-award winning novelist and non-fiction writer from 1993 onward. In that capacity he wrote on the Occupation, the Indochina War and the Algerian War. Allegedly sold in the United States, Germany, England, and Italy and counting the late Tobe Hooper among its most vigorous supporters (he even send Delpard a telegram to congratulate him) Night Of Death! has the good fortune of pre-dating other legendary splatter horror classics as Norbert Georges Moutier’s Ogroff (1983) and Antoine Pellissier’s Folies Meurtrières (1984). Before other infamous French (and Francophone) horror exports as Rabid Grannies (1988) and Baby Blood (1990) there was Night Of Death! Oh yeah, apropos of nothing, this was released the same year as Anthropophagus (1980) and Zombie Lake (1980). Somebody has to be the first.
After an 8-month dry spell Martine (Isabelle Goguey) has sorted her life out. She will soon be starting employment as a nurse-governess at Doux Séjour (Soft Sojourn, for some reason changed to the more grim sounding Deadlock House in the international English version), a stately manor and hospice de vieillards somewhere in the pastoral French environs, and for that reason breaks up with her boyfriend of some time Serge (Michel Duchezeau) through a hasty writ. Reporting for duty on her first day Martine makes her acquaintance with groundskeeper Flavien (Michel Flavius) as well as iron-fisted châtelaine and administrator Hélène Robert (Betty Beckers), in that order. Madame Hélène is clearly frustrated (and makes no effort to hide it) that Martine taking office before her colleague’s two months are up is not done and she’s thoroughly scolded for just that. Martine soon befriends current (and beleaguered) nurse Nicole Clément (Charlotte de Turckheim) who, despite experiencing opposition from her superiors, has no intention of leaving her position. Les pensionnaires sont the usual bunch of eccentrics, loonies, and lonely but there’s no denying that they’re remarkably well-preserved for their advanced age. One day Martine is told that Nicole picked up and left and that a maniac known as the Golden Needle Killer is on the prowl. As she starts investigating Martine discovers that things at Doux Séjour aren’t what they seem.
Delpard stacked his cast with stars, old and new. Among the elderly Betty Beckers, Jeannette Batti, and Germaine Delbat were stately monuments of pre/post-war French cinema and television and Jean-Pierre Mocky regular Georges Lucas (imagine being him in a post-1977 world) would later turn up in The Return of the Living Dead Girls (1987); ostensibly drawing the attention are Charlotte de Turckheim and Isabelle Goguey. That de Turckheim was destined for greatness was all but a given. As the daughter of Adrien de Turckheim and Françoise Husson of the Lorraine-Dietrich automobile and aircraft engine manufacturer and cousin of composer/director Cyril de Turckheim she initially worked as a secretary, clothing store clerk, and French teacher. Charlotte debuted in the Bernard Launois porno The Depraved of Pleasure (1975) in the demanding role of “a cyclist” and shared the stage with Eurociné regulars Olivier Mathot and Rudy Lenoir as well as sometime Jean Rollin muses Marie-Pierre and Catherine Castel. Mais oui, the same Bernard Launois who would go on to direct the utterly deranged gothic Devil Story (1986). In 1979 Coluche wrote and produced her first stand-up show, simply called One Woman Show, that premiered in the Théâtre d'Edgar in Paris in 1981. From there she quickly went on to bigger and better things beginning with Claude Berri’s Schoolmaster (1981), My Other Husband (1983), Dirty Destiny (1987), and Wonderful Times (1991). De Turckheim shared the screen (often several times) with Alain Delon; the Claudes, Brasseur and Chabrol, Michel Aumont (father of Tina), Philippe Noiret, Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, as well as Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sophie Marceau, Dominique Lavanant, and Virginie Ledoyen; Night of Death! is sure to stink up an otherwise impressive resumé.
Mon Dieu, Isabelle Goguey is what the French call une fille bien agréable. After appearing in the comedies The Big Recess (1976), The Phallocrats (1980), and A Dream Night For an Ordinary Fish (1980) la jeune mademoiselle landed her most enduring role in Night Of Death! assuring that long-desired cinematic immortality. Had Bruno Gantillon ever made a follow-up to his féerique Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971) la jolie rouquine should have been at the center of it and such a thing would surely would’ve transformed her into an international sex symbol or at least a cult favourite. La belle rousse could, nay, should have been a star in a dream-like fantastique from Michel Lemoine, a pompous bodice-ripping Italian gothic or giallo, a Spanish El Hombre Lobo epic from Paul Naschy, or even a not quite as glamorous British knickers and knockers romp from Pete Walker or Norman J. Warren. Sacré bleu, that such a thing never transpired. Delpard was so good to give de Turckheim and Goguey a nude scene each. Charlotte’s happens early on but it’s Goguey who has the most memorable. After Night of Death! demand for redheads like herself dried up and economic anxiety forced Isabelle into working with her father Claude Pierson as a production assistant and assistant director on the numerous pornos (usually with France Lomay, Nadine Pascal and/or Cathy Stewart) he was filming at the time. Goguey would have been right at home in Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl (1982). No doubt Isabelle Goguey could have been a bigger star given the right project and role.
Perhaps it’s somewhat too charitable to call Delpard a provocateur the way Joël Séria was. Night of Death! is a lot of things, but it’s hardly a masterclass in subversion as such. Regardless, surely Delpard was trying to make some kind of point (which is never exactly clear, but it’s the sentiment that counts) with the bourgeoisie quite literally eating the proletariat to retain its youth. It was something of a throughline in 1970s counterculture cinema at large, as was the generation gap and the attendant changes in morals and values. There’s something skincrawlingly eerie about the old feasting on the blood and gnawing on the bones of the young. Certainly Night Of Death! tries to say something (again, it’s never exactly clear what, but still) about class conflict, the struggle between the ruling – and the working class, the patricians and the plebeians, and the capitalist construct of social stratification. Jules, the resident card-carrying Communist, not only “knits the sweaters of the Revolution” but assures Martine that when has he “finished knitting, the Revolution of the old people will begin!" Does it say something about the treatment of the elderly, the infirm, and the mentally unfit? Probably. By the same token it decries that these elderly homes are permanently underfunded, understaffed, and its employees always on the verge of bankruptcy. The decade of untethered ego and greed was characterised by the disintegration of community, the dismantling of tradition, and fear of institutional, establishmental, and government overreach. None of which are necessarily bad in and of themselves but in unison tend to generate an explosive mix of fear and paranoia. Night Of Death! might not be a work of great socio-political critique but it’s definitely there.
While the gore is pretty much limited to one or two scenes it’s more than enough to qualify Night Of Death! as the earliest example of what history would come to call the French Extreme. Whereas in the 1970s directors as Jean Rollin, Mario Mercier, Michel Lemoine, and enfant terrible of French comedy, Joël Séria arguably were dominant forces by the time the next decade rolled around only Rollin, Lemoine, and Séria would remain active. In their decade-long reign of terror Eurociné unleashed some of the worst that exploitation and Eurocult had to offer. Night Of Death! has the good fortune of preceding Ogroff (1983), Devil Story (1986), and The Return of the Living Dead Girls (1987) by several years. Only Baby Blood (1990) from Alain Robak a decade hence would attain similar historical importance and cultural significance. That is to say, until Fuck Me (2000) but would do a similar thing another decade later. It’s rather interesting how French cinema upped the ante about every decade or so. A long way from the fantastiques and gothics of old Night Of Death! was a signifier that French fringe cinema wasn’t afraid to evolve with the times. The French Extreme begins here.