søndag 19. april 2015

The Night of the Damned/La notte dei dannati

Italy, 1971

Directed by Filippo Walter Ratti

Pierre Brice, Patrizia Viotti, Angela De Leo, Mario Carra, Antonio Pavan, Alessandro Tedeschi, Daniela D’Agostino

My craving for obscure European horror films apparently never seizes and now it’s time to look closer at The Night of the Damned directed by Filippo Walter Ratti (under the anglicized pseudonym Peter Rush), a comedy director whose career started in the 1940s but who today is remembered largely because of his brief brushes with horror and giallo territory in the twilight years of his career.

The plot is set somewhere in France and deals with sharp-witted journalist Jean Duprey (Pierre Brice), who has become famous after helping the police solve a high profile murder. His charming wife Danielle (Patrizia Viotti) seems impressed by all the attention bestowed upon her hubby but Jean himself couldn’t care less. His interest is raised, however, when he receives a cryptic letter from the prince Guillaume de Saint Lambert (Mario Carra), a once dear friend that Jean lost contact with years ago. Jean soon discovers that the letter contains a code leading to a couple of macabre passages from Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection The Flowers of Evil. Danielle is confused since the Baudelaire passages don’t clarify anything but Jean explains that Guillaume has always been a bizarre character with a fondness for puzzles. He interprets the macabre passages as meaning that Guillaume’s life is in danger, and quickly drags Danielle along to go check up on his old friend.

Jean and Danielle try to decipher the cryptic letter

It turns out that Guillaume lives in an old, crumbling and supposedly haunted castle with no electricity installed. Danielle and Jean are greeted by Guillaume’s attractive wife Rita (Angela De Leo), who Jean has never met or heard about before, and she tells them Guillaume is gravely ill from a strange disease. Jean immediately runs to Guillaume and finds him in a morose and agitated mood. He claims his sickness is the result of a three centuries old family curse that afflicts all men of the Saint Lambert family when they turn 35 – striking them with a sickness that consumes them until their brains explode with madness. Guillaume then begins to speak in riddles about a horrifying truth but goes into a hysterical fit before he can reveal anything else.

Jean is reunited with the sickly Guillaume

Guillaume’s mysterious wife, Rita

Later at dinner, Rita tells Jean and Danielle that Guillaume’s illness is completely imaginary. Danielle is rather upset by the whole thing and when she’s about to go to bed she is greatly disturbed by an old drawing depicting a witch burning. In her sleep, Danielle sees the flames in the drawing come to life and she has a terrible nightmare about being burned alive as a witch.

An old drawing upsets Danielle...

...and leads to disturbing nightmares

Jean tries to talk to Guillaume again but he just keeps on speaking in riddles about a “horrible truth” that is hidden in the library. He finally agrees to tell Jean everything tomorrow but postponing the revelation of whatever forbidden knowledge one possesses until the next day is never a good idea in movies, so it comes as no surprise that poor Guillaume is found dead in his bed the next morning. Rita quickly throws together a rather ghoulish funeral ceremony in an eerie candle-lit crypt complete with white-hooded pallbearers.

Poor Guillaume’s macabre funeral

That same night a nubile young blonde is abducted and taken to a misty underground lair where Rita, who it turns out is a witch, sits on a dragon-headed throne and presides over a satanic ritual that involves her naked female servants engaging in a lesbian orgy with the kidnapped girl. At the end, Rita herself gets up and attacks the girl with her deadly claws. The next day, the poor girl’s naked, mutilated body is discovered not far from the Saint Lambert castle – her body having been drained completely of blood.

A hapless young woman is abducted...

...and meets her fate in Rita’s mist-enshrouded lair

The poor woman’s lifeless remains

The case is assigned to the bewildered Inspector Gérard, who quickly recruits Jean to assist in the investigation. In a puzzling turn of events, the victim is revealed to be Guillaume’s cousin and Jean is convinced that the key to the mystery is the “horrible truth” that Guillaume said was hidden in the castle’s library. As he obsessively searches for clues, Jean fails to notice that his increasingly unstable wife starts falling victim to Rita’s satanic powers. She is quickly bewitched into a lesbian affair with Rita, who has macabre plans for both Jean and Danielle...

Jean searches for answers in the castle library...

...and is completely oblivious to the fact that his wife is bewitched into a deadly lesbian affair

The Night of the Damned was Filippo Walter Ratti’s first attempt at making a horror film, and the script by Aldo Marcovecchio is molded in the then rather passé tradition of the Italian gothic horror films of the early 1960s but with vamped up visuals of steamy nudity and lesbianism to make it more appealing to an early 70s grindhouse audience. It comes with all the necessary ingredients for an Italo horror fan favorite but instead it vanished into obscurity due to the decades-long unavailability of an English-friendly variant as well as a full uncut version. The Night of the Damned was originally released in Italy in a heavily watered-down version that cut out nearly all of the graphic lesbianism. This cut was also released on Italian VHS on the Shendene label (running 83 minutes) and it has been the most commonly seen version of the film – thus damning it to a similar fate as that of Ratti’s next film, the forgotten giallo Crazy Desires of a Murderer (1973), which also contained a series of explicit sex scenes that were hacked out by the Italian censors. But unlike the uncut version of Crazy Desires of a Murderer, which is probably lost forever, the naughty bits excised from The Night of the Damned still exist since a steamier version was prepared for export to countries with more relaxed censorship policies. There’s a French VHS release under the title Les nuits sexuelles, which contains a whooping 12 extra minutes of graphic lesbianism. However, this version is actually ten minutes shorter than the Shendene tape due to the elimination of a significant number of plot and dialogue scenes – making it somewhat of a bastardized ‘sexy version’ of the film. Thankfully, some kind soul has created a composite variant by adding the naughty bits from the French version to the censored Italian cut as well as adding English subtitles. A most welcome treat indeed, even if the steamier parts are in dire shape.

A few scenes from the stronger ‘sexy version’ in rather grotty quality

The film’s more graphic content also survives in the form of a photo-novel version published in the magazine Bigfilm, which devotes ample space to the many scenes of explicit lesbianism.

Some assorted scans from the rare photo-novel version, which strongly emphasizes the sexual content

An English-language version was also prepared, with dubbing expert Ted Rusoff in charge of adapting the dialogue to English and directing the dubbing. This version was released in the UK (after being cut by the BBFC in order to achieve an X rating) by Butcher’s Film Service, who paired it on a double bill with another Italian horror film: Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping in the Dark (1971). Surprisingly, the English-dubbed version never surfaced on VHS anywhere in the world, constituting the main reason why The Night of the Damned has remained obscure for many years. The film’s distribution rights are currently owned by Movietime but the description in their online catalogue only lists an 85 minute Italian-language version. Sadly, this indicates that they do not have elements for the steamier scenes cut from the Italian print, and it probably also means that the English dub track is lost. In other words: the currently circulating fan version may well be the best version we’re ever going to get.

As for the film itself, it is an interesting and atmospheric if not entirely successful slice of sleazy gothic horror. Its main drawback is that the lesbian sex scenes are drawn out to the point of near ludicrousness – stopping the film dead in its tracks for long stretches of time. The censored Italian cut is actually more agreeably paced but cannot be recommended due to its lack of frisson. In other words, the composite uncut version is still the way to go even if the repetitive, drawn out nature of the sex scenes do work to its disadvantage.

The film also suffers from a distinct lack of originality, with the basic premise playing like an amalgamation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, complemented by a host of familiar satanic and haunted castle clichés. But as long as you are able to overlook these misgivings, The Night of the Damned offers a series of finer points that work in its favor. The film is above all stylish and colorful to look at – starting with the wonderful credits sequence, which features flickering flames superimposed over still shots of the actors drenched in vivid Mario Bava-esque red and green lighting while the enchanting title song from Amando De Ossorio’s Malenka the Niece of the Vampire (1968) plays.

A few images from the gorgeous, Bava-esque title sequence

A similarly striking use of color lighting is later employed in a satanic orgy scene in which we see Rita sitting on her throne while a column of vibrant pink smoke rises from a cauldron next to her and imbues the screen in a pink hue. It’s just too bad that the film doesn’t experiment more with this type of stylish lighting. Instead it frequently opts for the more traditionally gloomy lighting that one typically associates with such old-dark-house movies and this approach admittedly works as far establishing classic gothic atmosphere goes.

Some dazzling use of sparkling colors

More classic gothic imagery

One particularly intriguing aspect to the story is the employment of cryptography, anagrams and poetry by Baudelaire as clues to solving the film’s mystery. This hints that The Night of the Damned was originally intended for a more sophisticated target audience but the way it ultimately turned out, these plot points are somewhat lost in the shuffle among all the lesbian shenanigans. Likewise, the fact that Rita is draining her female victims of their blood – apparently to retain an eternally youthful appearance, Elizabeth Báthory-style – opens the door for a vampiric edge, but it is never made explicit, and nothing much ever comes from this potentially interesting plot point.

Rita puts her deadly claws to use and drains her victim of blood

Even though the film never explores its vampiric theme, this newspaper ad misleadingly plays up that angle with the following tag line: “A mysterious castle: vampires, hallucinations, horrors! The countess Dracula in the latest and most chilling film of Terror!!!”

Still, while the film may miss out on the opportunity to explore the above plot points in a fully satisfactory fashion, one should appreciate the fact that they are there at all, as they do put a bit of a refreshing spin on the proceedings. And so do other memorably bizarre little moments scattered throughout the film, such as a scene in which the sickly Roderick Usher-esque Guillaume is talking to Jean and we see the image of a skull momentarily superimposed over Guillaume’s face. Hardly the most subtle way to signalize him as doomed but it is nevertheless a strange and eerie image that stands out. Other memorable and well-staged sequences include the macabre funeral procession and scenes down in Rita’s smoky, cobwebbed crypt – well helped by Girolamo La Rosa’s stylish cinematography and lighting, which makes good use of the medieval castle setting to create a delightful gothic atmosphere.

The rather bizarre skull scene

Rita’s misty underground crypt is a stylish, delightful sight

The interesting cast is led by handsome French actor Pierre Brice, who became a superstar in Germany in the 1960s due to his role as the Apache-chief Winnetou in a long line of popular German films based on the novels by Karl May. As the popularity of the Karl May adaptations began waning by the late 1960s, Brice tried to break free of the Winnetou image, and while he never quite managed to do so, his attempts saw him pop up in a couple of interesting French and Italian productions during the 1970s. The Night of the Damned was, however, not entirely new territory for Brice, who had already starred in Giorgio Ferroni’s stylish Italian gothic horror classic The Mill of the Stone Women (1960) way back in his pre-Winnetou days. Here, however, he’s not really at the top of his game – at times looking both a little bewildered and out of place while Ratti focuses most of his attention on the attractive female cast.

A slightly bewildered-looking Pierre Brice

Cast in the female lead as Danielle is well-shaped, blonde starlet Patrizia Viotti, who had started her career by appearing nude in erotic photo-novels while she was still underage, and who became a favored object of the yellow press due to a scandalous and highly publicized romance with British-born singer Mal in 1969. This propelled Viotti into a busy movie career in the early 1970s that started with the erotic film Erika (1971), which – like The Night of the Damned – was directed by Filippo Walter Ratti and paired Viotti with Pierre Brice. She also appeared in a small but pivotal part as Barbara Bouchet’s lesbian lover in Silvio Amadio’s enjoyable giallo Amuck (1972), was the female lead in Leopoldo Savona’s rather dismal giallo La morte scende leggera (1972), and appeared in a few decamerotic films before dropping off the scene almost as quickly as she had appeared. When watching The Night of the Damned it is easy to see why. Viotti simply wasn’t a particularly good actress – hampered by both a wooden demeanor and lack of expressivity. It’s obvious that she was put in movies simply because of her notoriety in the gossip pages and once that dried up, so did her career. Tragically, Viotti quickly fell on hard times – getting involved with drugs and being arrested numerous times – before passing away in 1994 at just 44 years old.

Patrizia Viotti in full scream queen mode

The most appealing presence in the film is unquestionably the mysterious witch played by the gorgeous, raven-haired Angela De Leo – best known for starring in a series of photo-novels (of both the romantic and the sexy variant). Clad in black gowns and with heavy eye-make up, she always has the same fixed expression and icy stare while the camera photographs her in under-lit tones to make her appear more sinister and mysterious. This gives De Leo a truly striking and uncanny appearance that commands attention, and she is used effectively even if she doesn’t do that much actual acting.

The ravishing Angela De Leo - heavily made-up and carefully lit at all times

While far from a lost classic, The Night of the Damned is just atmospheric and sleazy enough to keep fans of such movies diverted throughout its running time. You could definitely do a lot worse than this nice-looking little flick.

© 2015 Johan Melle

The cast:

Pierre Brice as Jean Duprey

Patrizia Viotti as Danielle Duprey

Angela De Leo as Rita Lernod

Mario Carra as Guillaume de Saint Lambert

Antonio Pavan (???) as Inspector Gérard

Alessandro Tedeschi as Professor Berry

Daniela D'Agostino as The maid

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