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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 (1972) 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: journalist accepts wager to stay overnight at a haunted castle

All through the 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations were in vogue. The movement was started by a slew of Roger Corman productions starring Vincent Price as The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Premature Burial (1962), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). This in turn led to Poe-inspired productions as The Blancheville Monster (1963) and the German production The Castle of the Walking Dead (1967). The credits insist on that Castle Of Blood is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Danse Macabre” but instead it bears more of a resemblance to Poe’s 1827 five-part poem “Spirits Of the Dead”. Castle Of Blood bases itself on the French superstition that the dead rise from their graves on All Souls Eve, the subject of the titular poem by Henri Cazalis which was put to music by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874.

Castle Of Blood was helmed by versatile workhorse director Antonio Margheriti from a screenplay by Bruno Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi (as Jean Grimaud). The project was initially slated to be directed by Sergio Corbucci but he passed it on to Margheriti due to scheduling conflicts. Second unit and assistant directing was future cannibal atrocity specialist Ruggero Deodato. The production was bankrolled to make optimal usage of the sets and locations that producer Giovanni Addessi had used earlier for the comedy The Monk Of Monza (1963). British horror queen Barbara Steele was in the midst of her conquest of Meditterranean horror cinema and Castle Of Blood is graced with breathtaking monochrome photography by Riccardo Pallottini (as Richard Kramer) and a waltzing harpsichord, piano and weeping violin score by Riz Ortolani. Castle Of Blood was shot in just 15 days and Margheriti remade it on a larget budget and in color as Web Of the Spider (1971) with Michèle Mercier in Steele’s role. Castle Of Blood is a spectacular little gothic exercise that overcomes it budgetary limitations through sheer talent, perseverance and ingenuity in using the resources that it has to its disposal.

In the gloomy Four Devils pub in Victorian era London vacationing American author of weird and macabre literature Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli, as Montgomery Glenn) is reciting his 1835 novel “Berenice” to his companion Lord Thomas Blackwood (Umberto Raho, as Raul H. Newman). Intersecting with the men is starving young journalist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) who has been trying to secure an interview with Poe. Poe insists that all of his stories were based on events he experienced. The men discuss the nature of death and Foster explains his skepticism towards the supernatural. At this juncture Lord Blackwood proposes Foster put his skepticism to the test by staying the night at his remote castle. An easy enough wager that will score him 100 pound sterling for his trouble. Foster accepts the challenge, offering ten pound sterling as collateral and soon he is being transported to the fog-enshrouded manor by coachman Lester (Salvo Randone) in Lord Blackwood’s carriage. After passing through the huge iron gate, traversing a foggy graveyard and navigating through thick foliage and long tree limbs Foster, sufficiently spooked, makes his way into the Castle Of Blood.

After walking aimlessly through shadowy, cobweb-filled corridors with dusty candelabras and metallic suits of armor, desolate empty chambers with nothing but blowing, ghostly curtains Alan at long last makes his acquaintance with Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele). Foster is immediately smitten with Blackwood but he is spooked by a clock that chimes even though its pendulum doesn’t swing and an eerie looking portrait that acts as a centerpiece in the great hall. Julia (Margarete Robsahm) seems to materialize out of the shadows whenever he looks at her portrait. Julia warns Elisabeth not to befriend the handsome stranger, but Elisabeth insists that he will “bring her back to life”. As it turns out Elisabeth not only had a husband named William (Benito Stefanelli, as Ben Steffen) but also was in a tryst with strapping gardener Herbert (Giovanni Cianfriglia, as Phil Karson) and the unwilling recipient of Julia’s sapphic affection. Along the way Foster meets house guest Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominici, as Henry Kruger), an expert in the supernatural. According to the good doctor every year on All Souls Eve the lost souls of Castle Blackwood re-enact their fates lest they are able to claim the warm blood of the living to sustain them until the next year.

As Foster comes to grips with the realization that he is doomed Lord Blackwood has invited a couple of newly-weds on the pretext of the same wager. Before they arrive Foster first has to see how Dr. Carmus met his demise as he walks through the ancestral crypt and is eventually overcome by the walking corpse of gardener Herbert as one of the coffins disgorges its decaying cadaverous contents. By this point Elsi Perkins (Sylvia Sorrente, as Sylvia Sorrent) and her husband (John Peters) have arrived and are all over each other. Elsi is frightened by the strange noises inside the castle’s bowels and urges her husband to investigate. This doesn’t stop her from taking off her bodice and changing to a see-through hoop skirt. Elsi is choked by the hulking Herbert as she takes off her clothes in front of the fireplace. Her husband befalls a similar fate when he comes to her rescue. Having witnessed the grisly ends of all residents Alan is barely holding on to his wits. Elisabeth urges him to escape the castle premises but insists that she cannot go with him. Alan forcefully takes her with him only for Elisabeth to dissolve to ghastly skeletal remains on her own gravestone. On his way out of the premises Alan is impaled by one of the spikes of the iron fence as the wind blows. In the morning Poe and Lord Blackwood arrive at the castle. “He’s waiting, so you can see he’s won the bet,” Poe intones jokingly. “The Night of the Dead has claimed another victim” retorts Blackwood sardonically. ”When I finally write this story…. I”m afraid they’ll say it’s unbelievable,” a morose Edgar Allan Poe concludes.

As a French-Italian production Castle Of Blood boasts two stellar leads and a number of prominent supporting players. Barbara Steele had established herself with her double role in Mario Bava’s excellent Black Sunday (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962) and worked with Margheriti earlier on The Long Hair of Death (1964). Steele would continue her conquest of Meditterranean horror cinema with appearances in 5 Graves For A Medium (1965), Nightmare Castle (1965), An Angel For Satan (1966) and in the following decade in Shivers (1975), the debut feature of body horror specialist David Cronenberg. Georges Rivière had been in The Black Vampire (1953), The Longest Day (1962) and The Virgin Of Nuremberg (1963) prior. Arturo Dominici was a reliable supporting actor that was in The Labors of Hercules (1958), Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959), The Trojan Horse (1961) and the Angélique series (1964-1968). Silvano Tranquilli was in, among others, The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962), the Silvio Amadio comedy So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious (1975) with Gloria Guida and Dagmar Lassander as well as Star Odyssey (1979), the concluding chapter of Alfonso Brescia’s abysmal science-fiction quadrilogy following the success of Star Wars (1977). Finally, Umberto Raho was in The Last Man on Earth (1964), the superhero fumetti Satanik (1968), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and the Tsui Hark actioner Double Team (1997) with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.

Like a lot of gothic horrors of the day Castle Of Blood is a slow-moving affair that takes its time setting up its characters and building atmosphere. The Four Devils pub scene does some excellent economic storystelling. It sets up the main characters, lays out the premise of the movie and sets the plot into motion. Each character is given just enough shading to be believable. Foster is a man of reason and logic, Poe initially comes across as a raving lunatic (but in the third act will turn out to be the most sympathetic character) and Lord Blackwood is a member of nobility that will stop at nothing to take advantage of the poor classes for his own personal enrichment/entertainment. Written not quite as well as the love arc between Foster and Barbara Steele’s Elisabeth. Within moments of their initial meet-cute the two are declaring each other their eternal love. Margarete Robsahm’s stern villainess contrasts beautifully with Barbara Steele’s wide-eyed and innocent Elisabeth. The colors of their gowns should clue anybody in as to what their alliances are. The brief topless scene from Sylvia Sorrente in the international version is worth the price of admission alone. The entire framing device in the Four Devils pub, having all three principal male leads detailing what the movie will be about, is surprisingly effective given the ridiculousness of the central premise.

Castle Of Blood was prescient of where gothic horror was headed in the ensuing decade and pushes the envelope in terms of violence and eroticism. Barbara Steele looks absolutely dashing with her pulled back ravenblack hair, huge eyes, lowcut dresses and heaving bosom. Norwegian actress Margarete Robsahm has that stern, icy Scandinavian look and Sylvia Sorrente is by far the most curvaceous of the assembled cast. Several of Steele’s love scenes are a lot more explicit than others from the period and Sorrente’s brief topless moment in the French print considerably raises the temperature. The sapphic liaison between Julia and Elisabeth was quite risqué for the decade for the same reason. It are not mere allusions that Robsahm’s character makes towards Steele’s Elisabeth but overt advances. The explanation for the castle’s curse is something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft or Nathaniel Hawthorn instead of the supposed repertoire of Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood. In the following decade gothic horror would remain a staple in continental European cinema and experience an infusion of bloodshed and erotica to make it more appealing for the new decade. Castle Of Blood, as these old gothic chillers tend to go, delivers exactly what it promises.