Previously available on an impressive-looking Italian-released DVD under its original title of “Il medaglione insanguinato” (“The Cursed Medallion”), which included only the film’s post-dubbed Italian soundtrack -- as well as various US discs that offered a truncated English language version missing several scenes -- this Italian-English rarity from that classiest of genre practitioners, Massimo Dallamano, now gets its most satisfying treatment yet, courtesy of the UK’s Arrow Video imprint. Still trading under its International moniker “The Night Child” (the end credits offer yet another Italian title variant, the ostentatiously abrupt “Perché?!" [or “Why?!” – which is surely begging for a double-bill pairing with Roman Polanski’s “What!”]), this disc brings us the full Italian cut with the superior English language audio track as the default option, occasionally switching to the Italian audio (which is also included on the disc in full, as an alternate mono track) for the missing scenes. Dallamano is of course best remembered for a pair of high end giallo offerings which uncompromisingly tackled some risqué-even-for-the-seventies underage ‘schoolgirl in peril’ subject matter while bringing a level of craft, elegance and sophistication to this often maligned sub-genre then still rare outside of the work of its masters, Bava and Argento. Despite a lengthy filmography built up during his first career as a cinematographer, which spanned the mid-forties to the late-sixties and climaxed in two prestigious collaborations with Sergio Leone on “A Fistful of Dollars” and “A Few Dollars More”, Dallamano’s time as a director was a relatively brief one but always consistent in its propensity for taking on what could be seen as minor exploitation fare and imbuing the material (which he usually co-wrote) with exquisite photography and rich psychological underpinnings, hinting at much more depth than their cheap marketing (which sold these films as ostensibly trashy euro cash-ins on the latest popular film fads) might’ve suggested for them.
“The Night Child” is a case in point: rarely mentioned until recently, when it was usually thought of merely as another entry in the Italian film industry’s early-seventies spate of post-“Exorcists” demonic possession flicks (in the same vein as “Beyond the Door” or that usually ignored mangling of Mario Bava’s gothic masterpiece “Lisa and the Devil” which went under the title “House of Exorcism”), the film takes cheesy story elements such as cursed medallions and the possible possession of a child by a demon, and elevates them to another level with a suggestive script and a fine cast -- as well as beguiling photographic artistry supervised by Franco Delli Colli (“What Have They Done to Your Daughters?”) which makes its possibly Dallamano’s finest looking film. High on ambiance and atmosphere, the film revels in its evocative sense of place and in the details contained by the crumbling stone architecture and narrow stone alleyways of its Spoleto shooting location; all of which indicates that other similarly languidly paced and atmospheric early-seventies titles, such as “Don’t Look Now”, may originally have been more of an influence than “The Exorcist”. The mix of English and Italian settings (and the same English/Italian/American cast combination) also suggests “The Omen” as a model – actually, with much more force than the fact of their both sharing the demonic child theme. With the screenplay’s employment of an art history-connected detective story concerning the depiction of the Devil in a mysterious 18th century painting, the film has more in common with comparatively recent pieces such as Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” (where the mystery was a literary based one) than it does with other Italian possession films of its own era.
Richard Johnson, best known to genre fans for “Zombie Flesh Eaters” although he’s still a semi-regular face in current British drama, plays widower Michael Williams -- a documentary-maker at the BBC (there are some nice exterior shots of him pulling up outside the instantly-recognisable-but-now-sold-off BBC Television Centre in White City) who’s in the process of putting together a new series on depictions of the Devil in Western art. His daughter Emily (Nicoletta Elmi), is still traumatised by the death of her mother in a house fire which she witnessed from outside the building, and has suffered several breakdowns due to flashbacks as a result. Any follower of Euro horror will know that when you have little Elmi crop up as ‘the child’ in any Italian film of this vintage, it can only spell trouble. Best known for brief but important roles in Argento’s “Deep Red” and Bava’s “Bay of Blood” and “Baron Blood”, she probably gains her most substantial career role here as a troubled youngster who keeps having visions of herself being chased, dressed in flowing white robes, through medieval streets by a gaggle of odd-looking peasant witch burners wielding pitchforks and scythes!
Hoping to distract the child from her troubles, Williams decides to take Emily to Italy with him, along with her governess Jill (Ida Galli), while he investigates the provenance of the painting in a mysterious projection slide showing a child in white robes being tormented by peasants while the tableaux is presided over by a horned representation of the Devil. He consults the eccentric Contessa Cappelli (Lila Kedrova), a tarot-reading seer as well as an expert in the region’s artworks (who accidently included the slide with some others she sent him for consideration as subject matter for his documentary) but is warned off looking into the matter further. Eventually he is able to glean that the oil painting was first recorded turning up mysteriously soon after the burning of an alleged witch in 18th Century Spoleto, and is rumoured to have been painted by the devil himself. He tracks the original to a crumbling villa in a remote and ancient region of Italy (where it is the centrepiece of an antiquary’s collection) with the help of a pretty young American production manager called Joanna Morgan (Joanna Cassidy) who Williams soon forms a romantic attachment to; but his investigations, and subsequent attempts by the BBC crew to film the work in its original setting, are hampered by seemingly supernatural phenomena that coincide with Emily’s increasingly disturbed behaviour after she takes to wearing her dead mother’s medallion -- an item originally given to his wife by Williams as a curio he picked up years ago in the same region of Italy.
The film is methodically paced and seemingly unconcerned about appearing so very slow-moving, dealing as it does in the steady build-up of suggestive details and mood rather than outright scares as Dallamano resorts to the judicious use of hand-held cameras quite often to bring a faintly-perceived air of unease to proceedings. The structuring of the screenplay has obvious parallels with that of Argento’s “Deep Red” (released the same year), dwelling mainly on secrets harboured and hidden away inside an old and semi-derelict villa. There’s even a scene where scraping away a painted-over section of the mysterious image in question reveals an extra clue, previously kept from the gaze of all other observers. Half-way through, the film makes some attempt to mimic the giallo format for real, with a sub-plot-centred on the murder of one of the main characters. The remote Italian setting, which conjures the memory of the kinds of locations used throughout Bava’s “Kill Baby … Kill!”, along with many art-festooned interiors, certainly helps to identify the film with a similar style of post-dubbed Gothic supernatural flick that’s heavily associated with the likes of Bava and Argento in his prime, but the mix of English-speaking and Italian-speaking cast members creates an odd bifurcated style (in the English language dub, at least) in which many of the scenes shot in London feel more ‘British’ for having the original actors voice their parts, while the rest of the movie is the usual post-dubbed Euro-pudding melange. The screenplay, by Dallamano, Franco Marotta and Laura Toscano, sets itself above most of its peers in its evocation of the subconscious rivalries between the almost all-female cast, who each have an attachment to the utterly oblivious Williams. The governess, Jill, is clearly only hanging around to look after Emily because she has a thing for the girl’s father, and the unlikey romantic pairing between Joanna and the middle-aged documentarian soon threatens to throw a spanner in the works in that regard. Simmering sexual tension and romantic ennui underline most of the more overtly uncanny happenings, then, with the Contessa Cappelli’s tarot acting as the interpreter of female feelings as well as the tool of a psychic seer that warns of mortal danger for the unabashedly rationalist film-maker. There’s also plenty of Jungian fire and water symbolism on display, and more than a few hints of Freud’s Electra complex in the attitude taken towards her father’s relationships with these other women who might replace her mother one day, by the young Emily. The child’s apparent possession by demonic forces is also a metaphor for her possessive attitude towards her father’s sexual pursuit of another woman, rendered in the terms of supernatural fiction and which eventually inspires a compelling and intense performance from the young Nicoletta Elmi, which even manages to overcome the inevitable voice dubbing of the English language version.
With its dreamy pace, well-drawn characterisation and highly evocative settings, this easily attains must-see status for followers of Euro horror, with fans now able to add another mini-classic to Massimo Dallamano’s little-seen filmography. This DVD release from Arrow Video includes English and Italian mono audio tracks and a nice clean and colourful transfer. There’s a 12 minute featurette which adequately covers the background on Dallamano and this film’s place in the Italian ‘Exorcist knock-off’ sub-genre, termed Pasta Possession movies; there are Italian and English trailers; and the package includes a collector’s booklet and a reversible sleeve, featuring the original poster design and new artwork by Graham Humphreys.
For more from Black Gloves, check out his blog, Nothing But the Night!