Night of Death! (La Nuit de la Mort!) Review
Whilst France currently seems, somewhat justifiably, the epicentre of the International extreme horror community, it also boasts a substantial back catalogue of titles to prove that the nation has historically held an affection for producing an evolving and unique brand of horror.
Step forth Raphaël Delpard with his sinister, clumsy, but largely enjoyable 1980 schlocker that demonstrates just how far our now-cherished franco-horror scene has journeyed over the last few decades. Night of Death! is a strange product that occupies the small and sparsely populated overlap between the gothic horror of the sixties and seventies, and the more brutal and crimson-spattered nasties of the early eighties, and with such an unusual combination makes for a somewhat odd escapade to witness.
Our protagonist is Martine (Isabelle Goguey), a young, pale, and pretty redhead, often resplendent in virginal white, who splits with boyfriend Serge in order to take up an employment vacancy at a retirement home. It'll be little surprise to jaded horror stalwarts that the retirement home (with the depressingly clichéd name of "Deadlock House") is a gothic-styled chateau that emits a suitably spooky aura when shot in the appropriate manner; ideal for filmmakers who are short on imagination for horror film locations. Martine soon discovers that the residents are unusual creatures, though affable enough, and with the help of stroppy co-worker Nicole, she settles in to life working at the home. The irony flows thickly, however, when Martine mutters to herself “I don't think I'll last long here”.
Proceedings naturally take a turn for the worse as Nicole suddenly disappears, caretaker Flavien behaves like a man cloaking some dark secrets, and stern house director Miss Hélène effectively incarcerates Martine in the premises by enforcing a rule forbidding her leaving site before the expiry of two months. Before too long, a fairly predictable and well-worn Countess Bathory thread has emerged, thematic echoes of Rosemary's Baby and Suspiria abound, and viewer patience is stretched as Martine misses so many cast-iron clues to her intended fate that some (myself not included, needless to say) may begin to find themselves cheering on the looming probability of a gruesome finale.
There are further concerns in addition to the disappointingly perfunctory plot and frustratingly convenient protagonist naivety. Right from the opening and bizarrely chaotic sweeping shot of a French suburban street, the filming of this grisly yarn is heavy-handed and unsteady. Composition is regularly poor with characters ill-framed at odd positions within the shot. And scenes frequently cut into one another with jerky and seemingly arbitrary timing.
Yet for all of the choppy camera work and sloppy framing, other scenes are presented in more refined fashion. The black shrouded sequences featuring our ghastly aged residents slowly combining into a group to drift up the corridor (presumably the mise-en-scène referred to in the closing credits), whilst overdone in terms of frequency (often, seemingly, in dreadfully incongruous alignment to the unfolding story), are joyfully sinister and unsettling. Some of the scenes offset against the backdrop of the beautiful French countryside are pleasing, and suitably eerie in twilight. And the initial pre-feast cadaver dissection sequence, whilst stomach-churning and revolting, is delivered with effects of a surprising quality that are likely to cause even modern gorehounds to flinch; well, maybe a little at least.
Ultimately, Night of Death! is something of a mixed bag to behold, thanks to Delpard's uneven directorial judgement. With some effective sequences over-played, viewers patronised with ABC story-telling techniques (at one point Martine scrawls down some dates to calculate an age, even though the intuitive leap required for viewers to calculate this themselves is not a huge one) unnecessary flashbacks further denting viewers' self-esteem, and a disjointed and queasy sensation resulting from the camera work, the picture could have failed on a grand scale. However, thanks to some maturely executed and surprisingly shocking gore, an endearing, charming performance from the convincing Isabelle Goguey, a slightly stretched double-twist climax, and an oft sinister and unsettling atmosphere, Night of Death! is a pleasantly enjoyable foray into the eighties French horror film archives.
What's really special about this picture though is that you'll be afforded a warm, comforting sensation that our French friends have vastly progressed their horror since Delpard's effort at the dawn of the eighties, and have crafted the sub-genre into the finely honed and devastatingly powerful product that exists today.
Synapse Films take a great deal of care in their transfers, though I imagine that this one may have been a tall order due to the age and relative rarity of the film. They present the movie in 1.66:1 widescreen. Black bars are visible to the left and right of the picture with an element of blurring at the extreme edges. The image is grainy but not as poor as you may expect; it seems largely clean without a great deal of sporadic noise or flecks. The main problem is that some frames are missing, which spoils certain moments and scenes. I wonder if this represents damaged parts of the film that have been removed.
Sound is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, so it's a fairly one-dimensional aural experience. Whilst this is perhaps a blessing with Miss Hélène's diabolical piano-backed dirges, and with the bizarre closing titles song, it's also something of a shame, since the music that accompanies our hungry house residents is surprisingly sinister and unnerving. That said, it's all clear enough with no hissing or interference to speak of.
It's disappointing that there aren't any extras on the disc (we can't really count the sleeve-listed "Chapter Selection") that might lend us further insight into the movie, but it's equally understandable given the age and relative modesty of the film. I imagine it would be difficult to source many extras for this title, so it's not a criticism of Synapse Films by any means.
Though less prolific or recognised as the leading luminaries of the period in this field (inevitably Jean Rollin springs to mind), Delpard delivers a satisfying though ultimately pedestrian horror flick. Some carefully crafted gore, decent performances, and an underpinning atmosphere of sinister threat means that we can largely forgive the questionable camera work, patronising story-telling, and reliance upon repetitive stylised scenes. For fans of early eighties French horror cinema, rarity-seeking gore freaks, and those with a taste for gruesome schlock, this Synapse Films release is well worth a spin. Viewers outside of these groups may be less likely to enjoy this visceral adventure, unless they can approach Delpard's flesh-munching piece with an open-minded and undiscriminating palette.