Night of Death (US - DVD)
Our reviewer Gabe Powers takes a job at a creepy, secluded retirement home
Welcome to another one of those magical moments that occur only a few times a year (if we’re lucky). What we have here is a re-release of a relatively rare horror gem, and a chance for a wider audience to finally see it. I try to approach such releases with tempered expectations, and usually even these are disappointed, but Night of Death (aka: La Nuit de la Mort) is something special. It’s not a knee-quaking, pant-wetting, jaw-dropping experience, but it’s a film that deserves better notice, and the reason studios like Synapse exist. The story is very simple, and not deceptively so. A young woman named Martine (Isabelle Goguey) finds employment through her fiancé working as a nurse at a strange and secluded retirement home. She shows up to work a day early, and is greeted somewhat negatively. The woman she’s replacing hasn’t even heard she was to be released. Martine is hesitantly shown about the grounds, and introduced to the oddball inhabitants. The next morning Martine’s co-worker is gone, and the residents all appear vibrant and energetic. I won’t spoil the rest, even if the cover art does.
I can’t find very much information on Raphaël Delpard’s film, especially not in English, not on the internet or in my personal library. I’m also generally just not that familiar with French horror films, especially not those released in the 1970s or ‘80s, with the exception of Jean Rollin’s output, and Alain Robak’s Baby Blood. In the last decade France has stepped up as a big player, and historically they were very important to the genre, but during the golden age of splatter the country didn’t have a big presence. Night of Death does look and feel a lot like a Rollin flick, specifically Grapes of Death, which was much less erotic, dreamy, and pretentious than the director’s usual cavalcade of lesbian vampire flicks. Even without sound or subtitles one would have to work pretty hard mistake the film for anything but French. However, moody visuals aren’t enough to set the film apart, and with the sound and subtitles working a wicked and dry sense of humour rears its head. Night of Death is an average horror movie, but it’s a great comedy.
The cast of characters are mostly defined by one or two elements, but the broad terms are utilized as practical shorthand, not lazy writing, and the most successful comedy is character driven. The retirement home residents are rather broadly humorous, and a bit hit and miss, though the old fellah that playfully calls Martine a fascist while ‘knitting a revolution’ is a constant delight. Martine herself is the comedy ace of spades though, and she’s subtle enough that I’m sure most viewers wouldn’t consider her amusing. Martine is almost impossibly likeable, and the constantly suspicious behaviour around her slides off her back like water off an especially oily duck. She’s almost unflappable, even when she catches the entirety of the residential community standing outside her bedroom window watching her undress, she rolls her eyes and clicks her tongue. It’s possible that Delpard intended the film to be more frightening than it is, but he appears to be treating most of the straight horror stuff as if it’s amusing. The feasting scenes and the last act escape are disturbing and exciting for their part, but the geriatrics tend to make amusing horror movie villains, more than genuinely frightening ones.
But it’s not all dry wit and splatteriffic slap-stick (and I should firmly note that the gory bits are few and far between for all the gore-hounds out there), Night of Death features some chilling pathos, and some remarkable bouts of purely visual storytelling. The retirement grounds are maintained by a crippled man with a short temper (who looks more than a little like Rammstein’s lead singer), who at first looks like just another Norman Bates stand-in (which he is to a degree), but Delpard gives the actor one scene to step above the norm. Martine, suspecting the groundskeeper of being a stand-alone murderer, sneaks into his room and witness a role-playing session she can only assume he stages on a nightly basis. The scene is genuinely upsetting and sad. Concerning the visual storytelling–Delpard sticks to the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra pretty strictly once the plot is set up. This works best as Martine puts together the mystery of the missing nurse without talking to herself. Night of Death’s closest cinematic cousins (outside of thematic similarities with stuff like Don’t Look in the Basement and The Sentinel) are the Dr. Phibes films, and Roman Polanski’s earlier films, specifically The Tenant. It’s most direct descendant seems to be Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, which features almost zero dialogue, not to mention some startling narrative similarities. One assumes Caro and Jeunet were familiar with Delpard’s work.
Night of Death is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is relatively clean, but does feature occasional white chunks, consistent fine grain, and other minor imperfections and artefacts. The whole thing appears a little washed out, but I’m assuming this was mostly a purposeful part of the original look, which is constantly moody and overcast. Due to this likely intended look the colours are largely desaturated and pale. The brighter reds of the gory bits and the thicker yellows pop against the cool whites and greys, but they also bleed a little bit. Though pale, the flesh tones, surrounding browns, and costume blues are relatively solid, and feature even gradation. Details are inconsistent. The close-ups are pretty sharp, but medium and wide shots are a bit noisy, especially on edges, which feature minor blending problems, and/or edge-enhancement problems (both of the white line and jagged noise varieties).
This DVD features a sole Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono French track and removable English subtitles. The track isn’t exactly teaming with sound effects, so a surround remix would be silly, and there isn’t a lot to complain about concerning Synapse’s treatment. The shortcomings are mostly related to original mix shortcomings. The mix is distinctly separated into a musical track, the on-set noise (including dialogue), and added effects elements. The music is the most important element to this particular film, and that part of the track sounds great. Laurent Petitgirard’s string quartet heavy score recalls the best of Herrmann and Morricone, but features an original sound as well, and works well with the tonally tongue-in-cheek film. The wicked string arrangements are the loudest thing on the track, and feature only minor distortion on the highest registers. The dialogue and other on-set sound is normally clear, but features occasional echo, hard ‘s’ distortion, and inconsistent volume levels. The sound effects added for emphasis are mostly delegated to the creepy groundskeeper, and though clear, do not blend with the set sound, or sync with the on-screen action. Again, not Synapse’s fault.
The history of Night of Death will remain a mystery because there are no extras included with this disc.
Night of Death isn’t going to please everyone, but horror fans starved of originality and the unseen should find themselves filled. Viewers need to understand the film is actually more comical than frightening, but most of us will be equally satisfied by the mix of elements. The video and audio isn’t quite up to Synapse’s usual standards, but I’m relatively sure most of the problems are unavoidable side effects of the original materials, and the final effect is reasonable at the very least. The film’s rarity could’ve lead to some exciting retrospective extras, but alas the disc is bare. Still worth a look, and even a blind buy for likeminded fans the world over.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 27th October 2009
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono French
Easter Egg: No
Director: Raphaël Delpard
Cast: Isabelle Goguey, Charlotte de Turckheim, Betty Beckers, Michel Debrane, Ernest Menzer
Genre: Comedy, Drama and Horror
Length: 94 minutes
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