The Night of the Devils, a 1972 horror movie directed by Giorgio Ferroni, is a slow burn of a film, long on atmospherics and mystery but a little short on scary jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Until the end, which ramps up some creepy gore effects and generally pays off well, the proceedings can seem a trifle slow. I watched it twice, and fell asleep twice, before watching it a third time all the way through. In the movie’s defense, I put it on quite late, at 2AM or thereabouts, so maybe it was unfair to expect that it would keep me awake. Then again, isn’t that precisely what a scary movie is supposed to do?
By the early ‘70s, Italian cinema had entered into a phase of horror that was both artistically and commercially successful. In the ‘60s, films like Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and Kill, Baby, Kill led to darker fare like Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which in turn took horror movies to even darker, more violent and altogether creepier places. Night of the Devils (1972) was the logical successor to this trend. Giorgio Ferroni took advantage of changing tastes to imbue his film with discomfiting imagery. Although tame by today’s splatter-filled standards, the movie contains significant amounts of effectively-presented blood, several moments of female nudity, and a sequence of hallucinatory images that is genuinely unnerving, involving maggots and intestines and so forth.
For the most part, though, the film eschews such over-the top visuals, preferring to use mystery to keep the audience hooked. The movie opens with a bedraggled and exhausted man emerging from the woods and collapsing to the ground. Waking in a hospital, he appears amnesiac and agitated. The authorities are stumped as to who he is and where he comes from; when a young woman visits, claiming to know him, the man grows even more hysterical. The mystery depeens even further when the young woman disappears shortly afterward, leaving behind only her purse—which is entirely empty.
After this setup, the audience is expecting an explanation, and the movie delivers in the form of a long flashback. Mystery man Nicola is revealed as a lumber importer who takes a wrong turn in the country, nearly crashes into a mysterious woman on the road, and wrecks his car as a result. Trudging into the nearest village looking for help, he encounters a strangely dour set of villagers who invite him to stay the night—in fact, they insist that he stay indoors. Then they go about bolting all the windows shut, for reasons they remain tight-lipped about.
At this point, the audience is way ahead of Nicola—after all, they’ve seen the outcome of his close encounter of the rural kind. (This is one of those movies where the audience is simultaneously several steps ahead of the main character the whole way through, and also trying to catch up with what’s already happened. It’s a good trick.) All that’s needed to complete the puzzle are the details of how he wound up in the hospital and whether the experience was really as horrifying as the lobby poster promises. These answers are revealed incrementally, along with a love triangle involving Sdenka, the woman visitor at the hospital, and her blond brother-in-law Jovan, whose interest exceeds brotherly love by a fair bit.
The movie makes good on its promises, as the finalé is suitably splashy and disgusting. As for the question of whether the experience was truly horrifying, the answer is: yes. Whether it will satisfy the cravings of a generation of moviegoers raised on the Saw franchise is an open question, but for viewers with a bit of patience, willing to let a movie unspool at its own deliberate pace, there are rewards to be had.
Performances here are adequate if unspectacular. Gianni Garko as Nocola spends most of time standing around looking faintly confused and worried, which is the default expression for most of the villagers, as well. Agostina Belli is lovely as Sdenka, but again, she is not called up to do a great deal other than speak cryptically and take off her dress. She does both of these things with aplomb.
Raro Video’s reissue is likely to be the definitive edition of this film on DVD. The HD transfer quality is pristine and the colors sharp without being garish (the blood is a little bright, and there’s a fair bit of it, but that’s likely to be the original tint as well). The sound is crisp and the subtitles convey the story without bogging things down unnecessarily. Video interviews with composer Giorgio Gastini and Fangoria magazine’s Chris Alexander shed light on the movie which is entertaining, if not exactly crucial. A 12-page illustrated booklet places the movie in its historical context and is helpful for viewers like myself, for whom ‘70s Italian horror cinema is something abstractly understood (or faintly remembered) rather than fully experienced.
This Night of the Devils is a solid film, then, if a bit slow. Lovingly restored, it will satisfy the obscure-horror lover, but maybe not so much the casual viewer. Today’s hyperkinetic movies provide quite a few more jolts than this deliberately paced offering.