Skip to content

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 on its face a patently ridiculous premise. 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.

Plot: resurrected vampire lord vows to cover the world in darkness…

Vurdalaki (released domestically as Вурдалаки, in most of Europe as Vamps, and in North America as Ghouls) is probably the closest a contemporary gothic horror has come to the mid-sixties model. Also not unimportant is that Vurdalaki is a loose but surprisingly faithful adaptation of the 1839 novella The Family of the Vourdalak from Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy. Vurdalaki harkens back to the halcyon days of monochrome when atmosphere reigned supreme, and bodice-ripping, blood-drinking, bosom-baring vampires were something solely existing in the fevered and over-active imaginations of viewers, directors, and producers alike. Sergey Ginzburg has imbued his Crimean gothic horror throwback with an incredible sense of modesty, perhaps relying on digital effects a bit too much where practical effects would have worked far better. That being as it may, Vurdalaki is an inoffensive gothic horror offering – although it sort of makes you wish it tried a little harder. For all the things it does right, it’s often too modest for its own good.

In 18th century Russia the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna sends her government secretary godson Lyubchinsky Andrej Vasilevich (Konstantin Kryukov) and his aide Paramon (Roman Madyanov) to a remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains near the border with the Ottoman Empire. They are ordered to collect exiled monk Lavr (Mikhail Porechenkov) at the Spassky Monastery and bring him to the capital of Saint Petersburg under the guise of urgent government business. When Andrej is rebuffed by Father Lavr on grounds that the village needs him more – and that whatever business the Empress Elizaveta has is none of his concern. Andrej and Paramon prepare for the month-long journey back to the capital. Before they depart Paramon spots a virginal young shepherd girl bathing in a nearby lake, but is injured by said girl before catching a glimpse of her. Milena (Aglaya Shilovskaya) promises to take Paramon to the family farm to treat his injuries. There Milena lives with her parents Gorcha (Mikhail Zhigalov) and Mariki (Yuliya Aug) as well as her older and younger brother Georgyi (Konstantin Milovanov) and Misha (Ivan Shmakov). As Paramon recovers and Andrej spents time on the farm he falls in love with Milena.

Meanwhile, resurrected vampire lord Vitold Bishteffi (Andrey Rudenskiy) and his loyal servant Turok (Igor Khripunov) have taken up residence in the former’s old castle. According to Bishteffi’s calculations in three days from now a constellation that happens only once every 150 years will occur and grant him untold powers. With the blood of a specially selected virgin he will be able to live in daylight. When he does he and his breed will subjugate mankind and restore vampires as the dominant class. Vitold orders Turok to bring Milena to the castle for a black magic rite but when he finds opposition from Andrej and Paramon more draconic measures are required. That night Bishteffi unleashes his imprisoned vampires to devour the village and expand his army of undead fiends. The force is too overwhelming and Milena does fall into enemy hands. Now with an army big enough to mount a counter-attack Vitold launches an all-out raid on Spassky Monastery. Will the combined forces of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr be enough to repel Bishteffi’s legion before they overrun the world?

Like the classic Italian, Spanish, and Latin American gothics here too religion (Orthodox Christianity) is an integral part of the proceedings and there’s no shortage of religious iconography. Vurdalaki is pretty secular for the most part and initially introduces Father Lavr as a cynical clergyman wary of government interference. The aide Paramon is in the midst of a crisis of faith and completely useless for most of the first two acts. The three-man team of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr and with Milena acting as the sacrificial virgin Vurdalaki at times feels like a Slavic riff on The Day Of the Beast (1995). Even moreso when Lavr starts reciting Revelation 21:1 during the wurdulak raid on the farming hamlet and the monastery. And just like in that movie Paramon regains his faith after the shared experience of warding off the undead horror.

Anybody weaned on, or familiar with, vintage gothic horror will recognize a few classic scenes. Vitold Bishteffi’s resurrection is lifted straight out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Just like Hélène Rémy in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), Lyla Rocco in The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), and Barbara Hawards in The Monster Of the Opera (1964) Milena too hears the voice of blood, although she can’t immediately place it. Bishteffi performs a rite just like in Terror In the Crypt (1964) or Twins Of Evil (1971) – and like Damien Thomas in that Hammer classic he’s far from an imposing vampire lord. The vampires in the dungeon is something straight out of The Monster Of the Opera (1960). Even though Vurdalaki adheres by much of the classic tropes, it couldn’t be much more of an antithesis of what the genre used to thrive on several decades ago. This largely stems from this being a Russian production, and Russia (although constitutionally secular) is staunchly and devoutly Orthodox. Vurdalaki is filled to the brim with religious iconography and leans heavily on the religious aspect.

The reason to see Vurdalaki is model Aglaya Shilovskaya. Back home in Russia Shilovskaya is a television personality and singer. She had a spread in Maxim Russia (January, 2017) and presented the sixth season of The Voice Kids in 2019. The closest comparison we can think of is probably Nicola Posener. Director of photography Andrey Gurkin manages to capture Shilovskaya from various flattering angles, but those hoping Vurdalaki would get some bare flesh and bounce out of Shilovskaya will be sorely disappointed. She gets exactly one semi-revealing scene during the bathing in the lake, but that’s as far as it goes. On the whole Vurdalaki tends to gravitate more towards a bog-standard action movie than a straight-up horror. Arrowstorm’s five-part Mythica (2014-2016) saga amped up the horror more than Vurdalaki ever does. And that’s a sad thing because this could have been an excellent throwback to the horrors of yore. Instead director Sergey Ginzburg keeps everything respectable and modest at all times. The Love Witch (2016) oozed sensuality from every pore. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale (2016) was tenser. This is about the farthest from Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Black Magic Rites (1973), The Dracula Saga (1973), and Nude For Satan (1974) as you can possibly get.

As is pretty much the standard these days and no matter how much we might hate it digital effects are the order of the day – and Vurdalaki, sadly, is no different. Everybody is impeccably clean for the times too, and not a single soul has a speckle of dirt on them despite this being primarily set in a farming hamlet. On the plus side, the action direction, cinematography, and choreography is better than it has any reason to be. The scimitar duel between Andrej and Turok especially is a fine piece of action filmmaking, moreso because Ginzburg refrains from using the maligned shaky-cam and the editing is not nearly as frantic as is the norm these days. It would probably have benefitted from old-fashioned practical effects, and tends to etch closer to Underworld (2003) and Van Helsing (2004). This is a far-cry from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) or any of the Latin American and Mediterranean European vampire flicks that inspired it. Which is really an elaborate way of saying that Vurdalaki is a vampire movie without any bite. If this is in any way representative for the general state of Russian horror, it looks like you’re not missing much of anything.