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Plot: journalist and his wife explore French countryside and find witches.

La Notte dei Dannati (or The Night Of the Damned, alternatively Il Castello dei Saint Lambert or The Castle of Saint Lambert – and Les nuits sexuelles or Night of the Sexual Demons when it was presented at Cannes Film Festival 1971 in its seldom seen explicit, hardcore form) was an Italo-French attempt to merge the pompous gothic horror of the past decade with the nascent witchcraft subgenre that was steadily emerging at the dawn of the seventies. Helmed by a director in his twilight years and a cast and crew largely consisting of blue-collar workers and honorable second-stringers it is considered nothing but a long forgotten footnote in the annals of Italian horror. As a minor entry into the 1970s gothic horror revival (and one of the earliest to capitalize on the nascent witchcraft subgenre) The Night Of the Damned is often far better than most people are willing to give it credit for, if you are prepared to meet it halfway.

There’s a degree of stylistic overlap between the German krimi The Strangler Of Blackmoor Castle (1963), the early proto-giallo A Black Veil For Lisa (1968), and this. Each seems a logical progression from the next and each seems to push the envelope further than the one that came before. Whereas The Strangler Of Blackmoor Castle (1963) was a gothic horror with early giallo overtones and A Black Veil For Lisa (1968) was a poliziottesco with a giallo bend; The Night Of the Damned combines gothic horror conventions with giallo styled killings and the then-popular witchcraft subgenre. The Night Of the Damned is a convergence of at least three popular horror styles of the day. It exists at that nebulous intersection between gothic - and witchcraft horror, and some superficial giallo stylings. It has the cosmopolitan suburban gothic setting of the former and combines it with the witchcraft horror aesthetic of the latter enlivened by bloody stylized giallo-like slayings. It’s a strangely alluring recombinant of The Blancheville Monster (1963), Terror in the Crypt (1964), Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969), and a little Necrophagus (1971). Since this was at the dawn of the giallo cycle The Night Of the Damned generally tends closer to the 1970s gothic horror revival than that nascent new subgenre. The Night Of the Damned is to the Italian gothic what The Witches Mountain (1972) was to the Spanish fantaterror. Interestingly both were released only a year apart. While minimal and appropriately atmospheric it has nothing on The Night Of the Devils (1972).

Filippo Walter Ratti was a routine professional who directed a number of respectable mainstream films before inevitably descending into the muck of exploitation and pulp. He chronicled the life of classical Italian theatrical actress Eleonora Duse (3 October 1858–21 April 1924), famous for her performances in the plays of Gabriele d'Annunzio and Henrik Ibsen, in the biopic Eleonora Duse (1947). Instead of a mere recitation of dry facts the novel La grande tragica by Nino Bolla served as the basis. Next he made the Zorro ripoff The Black Mask (1952) that collected over a hundred million lire the Italian box office and ostensibly was his biggest commercial hit. A year later he directed the feelgood It's Never Too Late (1953) that was an Italian riff on the 1843 novella A Christmas Carol from Charles Dickens. About ten years later Ratti was behind the historic war drama Ten Italians For One German (1962) detailing the 1944 Fosse Ardeatine massacre and followed that up with the Eurospy yarn Operation White Shark (1966) (with Roger Browne and Janine Reynaud).

In the late 1960s Ratti was became involved with producer duo Lucio Carnemolla and Gianni Solitro and their production company Primax. They commissioned two screenplays from writer Aldo Marcovecchio and assembled a skeleton crew comprising of director of photography Girolamo La Rosa, composers Roberto Pregadio and Carlo Savina, special effects man Rino Carboni, as well as stars Pierre Brice and Patrizia Viotti and let Ratti direct two features. Due to financial constraints Ratti filmed Erika (1971) and The Night Of the Damned back-to-back in and around the communes of Faleria and Cerviteri in Lazio with interiors at Elios Studios in Rome. Erika (1971) was a coming of age sex comedy on the model of emancipated erotica as Andrea (1968), Sweetheart or How do I tell my Daughter? (1969), Valérie (1969), and Eva (1969) and grossed an impressive 300 million lire at the Italian box office. By the time The Night Of the Damned premiered and didn’t do much of anything at the box office (it grossed just 82,772,000 lire, allegedly) it sank to obscurity almost instantly. Naturally Primax declared bankruptcy and vanished into thin air. Next Ratti made mondo documentary Mondo Erotico (1973) for Titanic Films and the giallo Morbid Habits Of the Governess (1977) for Gi.Ba.Si. Cinematografica in what appears to be a vanity project for writer Ambrogio Molteni. It was filmed around 1972/73 but wasn’t released until four years later.

In Paris, France distinguished journalist and amateur sleuth Jean Duprey (Pierre Brice) and his wife Danielle (Patrizia Viotti) receive an ominous letter from an old friend who he hasn’t seen in a decade, the troubled nobleman Guillaume de Saint Lambert (Mario Carra). Duprey is known for his affinity for riddles and puzzles and he has over the years in his work as a consultant to the police garnered a reputation for solving difficult cases. Upon closer inspection Jean (who everybody refers to as simply Gian because this is Italian) discerns that de Saint Lambert’s letter is littered with cryptic references to Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers Of Evil and his interest is instantly piqued. After deciphering that the letter is a cry for help Duprey decides to visit de Saint Lambert at his decrepit château. There they are greeted by de Saint Lambert’s blackrobed wife, Rita Lernod (Angela De Leo) as well as perpetually mute live-in maid (Daniela D’Agostino) and equally strange family physician professor Berry (Alessandro Tedeschi). Rita informs Jean that Guillaume has been afflicted by an undiagnosable illness. In the guest chamber a centerpiece print causes great distress in Danielle.

Jean is met with hostility and obstinate silence whenever he inquires after what mysterious malady has claimed de Saint Lambert and Danielle suffers recurring nightmares wherein she witnesses the burning of witches at the stake. In an unguarded moment de Saint Lambert tells Jean that he apparently was stricken by a hereditary disease befalling every de Saint Lambert past the age of thirty-five every generation and has done so for the past three centuries. He expires shortly after. With Rita shrouding herself in secrecy and with no answers forthcoming, as a man of logic and reason, Duprey decides to do some investigating of his own. In the library Duprey uncovers that in the 18th century an ancestor of de Saint Lambert was a leader of the Tribunal responsible for the burning of local alleged witch Tarin Drole who had been accused of making a covenant with the Devil and assorted acts of maleficium. Just when Jean and Danielle are about to leave Duprey is called upon by inspector Gérard (Antonio Pavan) to lend his expertise in his investigation in a spate of ritualistic slayings of nubile women, all with scratches on their chest. The first of these being de Saint Lambert’s cousin Nicolette Valmor de Saint Lambert (Anna Maria Ardizzone, as Anna Ardizzone) found hundreds of kilometers away from her ancestral home in Strasbourg. Jean doubts the veracity of the de Saint Lambert curse around the same time as Danielle becomes increasingly spellbound by Rita. What’s the source of Danielle’s recurring nightmares? Why is Rita so interested in Danielle, and how does it all connect to those ritualistic murders?

You know you have a problem when you have to content yourself with French nobleman Pierre Brice, perennial second-stringer Patrizia Viotti, and professional warm body Anna Maria Ardizzone. Before becoming an actor Brice was a highly-decorated soldier in the French Army who fought in the First Indochina War (1946-1954) and as a paracommando with the Commandos Marine in the Algerian War (1954-1962). While his dear friend Alain Delon became a global superstar thanks to international box office smashes as Any Number Can Win (1963), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Swimming Pool (1969) (the 2003 remake from François Ozon with Charlotte Rampling, Charles Dance, and Ludivine Sagnier is equally good) and a string of earlier successes. Brice left for Germany, Italy, and Spain to find success. He’s known around these parts for the gothic horror Mill Of the Stone Women (1960). After his 11-movie tenure as Winnetou ended Brice wanted to understandably distance himself from the sauerkraut western and the world of Karl May at large as fast and as much as humanly possible. Then Brice decided to work with Filippo Walter Ratti. Obviously he had a bone to pick with producer Horst Wendlandt or a point to make about being associated with the western genre for so long.

Ah, the Viotti sisters, Piera and Patrizia. Always good enough to fill up space but never good enough to lead. The Night Of the Damned concerns the youngest of the two, Patrizia. Viotti the younger got her start as a model for the erotic photo-novel Lunella which led to opportunities in acting. She was somewhat infamous for her very stormy (and very brief) amorous liaison with Welsh singer Mal Ryder from Mal and the Primitives, her subsequent miscarriage, and the eventual disintegration of their relationship – smeared all across the Italian tabloids in sordid detail. After Erika (1971) and this she rehabilitated her profile by appearing in Silvio Amadio’s Amuck! (1972) and Leopoldo Savona’s Death Falls Lightly (1972). Alas, it was not to be as she did two badly received decamerotici period piece sex comedies in between. Her older sister Piera didn’t have much of a career herself. The only mentionworthy titles in her modest filmography are the giallo The French Sex Murders (1972) and the decamerotico Put Your Devil In My Hell (1972). Patrizia’s career was slightly more voluminous and dignified than that of Piera. On 10 June 1976 Patrizia and her husband Claudio Biondi were arrested by the Carabinieri for drug possession after a search of their Via Carlo Pascal apartment effectively ended her career then and there. 16 years later, in 1994, she passed away at the young age of 44. The Night Of the Damned was pretty much the last role of note for Angela De Leo who had a career more depressing than Evelyne Kraft or Alexandra Delli Colli. Rounding out things is professional warm body Anna Maria Ardizzone. Ardizzone allegedly was a veteran of French cochon films of the time but there’s little hard evidence to substantiate that. She could be seen (mostly naked and in non-speaking parts) in the Enrico Bomba Arabian Nights sex comedy The Thousand and One Nights… and Another One Too! (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973), The Amazons (1973), and When Love Is Obscenities (1980). Here too Ardizzone is just another writhing, moaning warm body plus nothing. Who knows, maybe Renato Polselli hired her based on her performance here?

As far as we’re concerned The Night Of the Damned might very well be an important evolutionary link between the pompous Italian gothics of the day and the erotic French vampire horror that was about to engulf Europe thanks to Jean Rollin. For an Italian movie the script really tries to sell this as being French as besides Charles Baudelaire Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is also mentioned. This was made close enough to Amando de Ossorio’s Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969) to explain, if not excuse, the recycling of the same theme song and Carlo Savina’s usage of bits and pieces from the score he wrote to Terror in the Crypt (1964). It also comes with a melancholic organ, violin and harmonium score that's probably too good for something as kitschy as this. That it recycles plot points from both and casts Angela De Leo in the role of Adriana Ambesi in the former and Patrizia Viotti in the latter, respectively. The artwork that causes Danielle so much consternation is the 1685 engraving of the burning of alleged witch Anneken/Anna Hendriks in Amsterdam in 1571 by Jan Luyken from his Religious Persecutions collection, for those interested in such things.

The rudimentary and somewhat primitive special effects are charming in their crudeness. To the surprise of absolutely no one effects man Rino Carboni never became a household name. Giannetto De Rossi or Carlo Rambaldi he most certainly was not. Girolamo La Rosa would go on to photograph Sex Of the Witch (1973) and would forge a longtime association with Moroccan director Souheil Ben-Barka. It’s tempting to see this as an unofficial precursor to Byleth: The Demon Of Incest (1972) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), if this only had starred Mark Damon and Rosalba Neri. While there’s more than enough gratuitous nudity the regular horror version has several clear-cut breaks where the hardcore inserts would’ve been. You can sort of see how something like Black Magic Rites (1973) and Nude For Satan (1974) would naturally evolve from this. It might not be the best of its kind but it’s historically significant enough to warrant attention.

Some movies age like wine, others like milk. The Night Of the Damned very much echoes the Hammer gothics of the sixties (and their continental European imitations) where stuffy men of science investigate strange goings-on in ancient castles where evil may, or may not, dwell. This one also leaves no stone unturned in its slavish adherence to gothic horror convention and tradition. In places it’s torturously slow and often borders on the wrong side of cheap. Patrizia Viotti was as beautiful as any of the starlets of the day but her acting is shaky at best and wooden at worst. Angela De Leo is suitably MILFy but she was no Daliah Lavi, Dagmar Lassander, Helga Liné, Florinda Bolkan, or Rita Calderoni. While the story is patently and transparently ridiculous Aldo Marcovecchio’s screenplay is surprisingly literate for what by all accounts is a silly little fright flick. Like its Filipino forebear The Blood Drinkers (1964), The Night Of the Damned is both highly atmospheric and campy in equal measure. While not a classic (or even sub-classic) by any stretch of the imagination The Night Of the Damned does what it does very well. Some mild reappraisal might be in place. Whatever shortcomings The Night Of the Damned might have it isn’t any less effective when it fires on all cylinders. Imagine what Jean Rollin, Michel Lemoine, or Mario Mercier could have done with this. If it has not happened already, some brave company ought to resurrect this little curio in a grand 4/8K restoration and remastering. If there was any time to rehabilitate the reputation of The Night Of the Damned, that time is now.