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A review of the Arrow DVD, currently about £9 on amazon.
This is notionally an Italian attempt to rip off The Exorcist, from 1975. Italian exploitation tended to jump on any bandwagon going by, and there are a few exorcism movies from the mid-70s. The film has quite a haunting atmosphere, though, eschewing the usual projectile vomit and foul-mouthed perversity in favour of a more sinister mood.
Michael Williams is an English TV producer. His wife died in a fire not too long ago, and his daughter Emily has been left in an emotionally fragile state as a result. He has to go to Italy to make a documentary about the devil in art, and takes Emily and her nanny with him. He becomes fascinated by a large painting showing a girl and a burning woman. As Michael begins an affair with his pretty American producer, Emily starts to behave oddly...
It all seems to hinge on a weird medallion that Emily wears. Allowing your daughter who is prone to hysteria and nightmares to wear a sinister medallion covered in pentagrams seems to me to be bad parenting. Do correct me if I'm wrong - I'm no expert in these matters.
This is not the kind of full-bodied splatter movie the film's backers were probably hoping for. Italian horror could do subtlety, but it tended not to. This film is subtle - so if that's not to your taste you'll probably want to look elsewhere. There is none of the kind of explicit nastiness that you find in The Exorcist (and also none of the ingrained misogyny, thank goodness). The film unfolds quite slowly, with none of the shock-every-ten-minutes stuff that horror evolved into later. While I appreciate the fact that it doesn't go down the expected route, I did feel that the film was a little slow in places. It's satisfying in the end, but it does feel like there are a few digressions it could have done without (the whole police station sequence, for instance).
It's actually more like Don't Look Now than The Exorcist. English family with recent bereavement go to Italy and mysterious things happen involving the daughter. Just to make sure, there's also an older woman who is psychic and a good shock ending. It even has a couple of sex scenes, although they're not as good as the Don't Look Now one. The Night Child is pitching its ambitions a little higher, then - anyone can rip-off The Exorcist, which is a piece of crap; Don't Look Now is a classic, and much harder to capture the essence of.
The lead actor is Richard Johnson, an English stage actor who is in a few Italian horrors (usually enjoying himself a bit too much, but here his performance is nicely restrained). He's best known for appearing in the original The Haunting, and he was apparently seriously considered for the first James Bond. He is tall, dark and handsome, and it's credible that women in the film swoon over him. His American love interest is played by Joanna Cassady, who is also in Blade Runner. She's fine, but it's not a great part.
The little girl is Nicoletta Elmi, who is in loads of horror movies. She seriously annoyed me in Who Saw Her Die? But she's not so bad here. (In that film, George Lazenby played her father; she seems to have been Italian casting directors' go-to girl for almost and wannabe Bond daughters). Her dubbed voice does her no favours, though, the voiceover actress deciding that 'high-pitched' will do fine to convey childishness. There are only five real characters (father, daughter, love interest, nanny, psychic), but Italian horror perennial Edmond Purdom gets third billing for a one-scene cameo as a doctor.
The film starts in London, and there's some good location footage around King's Cross and Parliament Square. Michael works for the BBC, and there's a great bit where he pulls up outside Television Centre and gets out of his car. You can see the real-life security guards about to tell him to move along when the scene cuts.
The locations in Italy are also good - lots of narrow cobbled streets and crumbly old villas. It reminded me of the setting for Mario Bava's classic Kill Baby Kill. The Satanic painting looks quite impressive without really being very good (the characters in the film admit it's not that great). There are lots of nice little details scattered through the film, like the three-legged dog that hobbles past Michael for no reason, or the oddly formal looking dog portrait on Emily's bedroom wall.
It's well directed, with individual shots being nicely composed without being so flashy that they draw too much attention to themselves. The director was cinematographer on some of Sergio Leone's westerns, and if he lacks the visual stylishness of Bava, he is certainly capable of putting a nice looking scene together. (He also directed the decent giallo What Have You Done With Solange).
The one thing the film lacks is urgency. The characters are just about likable enough for us to care what happens to them, but the suspense scenes aren't really very suspenseful. Similarly, even a restrained horror movie needs to have some decent payoff somewhere along the way. Emily goes a bit shouty a few times, and throws some crockery around. We get some decent flashbacks to the mother's death, and Emily has a few hallucinations about being chased by hilarious looking medieval peasants. But otherwise there's no real scare scenes or proper bloodletting. I assume the 15 certificate is for the couple of sex scenes, but they're really very tame - a few flashes of nipple and little else.
The music is good - mostly just one eerie and evocative melody played in a number of different styles. Stelvio Cipriani is one of the those Italian composers whose name turns up in lots of things but who never quite stands out in the way that Morricone or Piero Umiliani or Riz Ortolani do.
The main extra is a short documentary about Italian Exorcist rip-offs, which seems to slightly miss the point as the Exorcist connection in The Night Child is fairly tenuous. One interviewee manages to get the plot of the The Night Child wrong when he's describing it, which is unimpressive. There is also a leaflet giving a bit of background about the director; unfortunately it very obviously wasn't proof read.
Otherwise we get two trailers and the option to play the film in either English or Italian with subtitles. I usually go for the English dub for these films as they were produced for the international market, especially when there are recognisably English actors like Richard Johnson involved. A couple of scenes are only available in Italian; presumably they were cut from the English-language release and never dubbed. The picture quality on the film is good for something of its age and obscurity.
This is never going to be an essential purchase; even fans of Italian horror will probably not know much about it. But it's surprisingly engaging, and makes a change from the schlockier horrors Italy was generally making by 1975.