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.