THE NIGHT CHILD
When discussing Italian genre cinema, only the hardest of the hardcore (or the most obsessive of the obsessive) bring up the name Massimo Dallamano. What a damn shame that is. Not only was Dallamano a top notch cinematographer for most of his filmmaking career but he was a damn fine director to boot. Every film he directed was a stunner. Some of them (especially his gialli) would easily rank among the best films made in their respective genres or sub-genres. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA, COLT 38 SPECIAL SQUAD, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? and SUPER BITCH (aka MAFIA JUNCTION) are all top shelf films and even Dallamano's lesser films (ANNIE, DORIAN GREY, DEVIL IN THE FLESH and the Edwige Fenech vehicle INNOCENCE AND DESIRE) are better than most films of their time. One could only imagine what other treasures we lost when Dallamano died in a car accident in 1976. Having recently watched RED RINGS OF FEAR again, I felt great sadness thinking of how much better that film would have been had Dallamano been around to complete the trilogy of films he began with WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?.
In typical Italian fashion, dozens of homemade imitations followed the successful release of THE EXORCIST in Italian theaters in 1974. THE NIGHT CHILD tends to get lumped into that bunch though it doesn't deserve to be. If this film has any kind of spiritual predecessor it would Nicolas Roeg's utterly devastating (and terrifying) DON'T LOOK NOW. Both Dallamano's and Roeg's films deal with precognition and deadly destiny. True, this film deals with a child possessed by some malignant entity, but there is no physical transformation, no levitations or head rotations. What we have in their place is a story of reincarnation, of a curse which compels a young girl and her father to their fate.
Michael is a British documentarian filming a BBC documentary on the history of evil as represented in classical pieces of art. He travels to Rome with his daughter Emily and her nanny Jill to examine a painting. Emily is suffering from night terrors ever since she witnessed the tragic death of her mother in a house fire (she jumped to her death instead of succumbing to the flames). Once in Rome, they meet Joanna, Michael's producer in Rome. Michael takes to Joanna almost immediately, something neither Emily nor Jill seem to be happy about. Emily begins to have visions in which she is being chased through the streets by a violent mob. Michael meets with Contessa Cappelli, the woman who sent him a slide of the painting Michael wishes to film. The Contessa confesses to having psychic abilities and claims that the painting is cursed. She tells him to leave it alone, but Joanna manages to track the painting down. It is inside a deserted villa. Michael is finally able to get a closer look at the painting. It shows a young girl carrying an ornate looking double-edged dagger, an angry mob behind her. It also shows a woman falling to her death. In the background, the devil looms large.
The next day, Joanna telephones to say that something is wrong with the footage. When she and Michael watch it, they notice a strange ghostly bit of light in every shot. It matches shape perfectly with the image of the little girl. Meanwhile Emily's night terrors are getting worse. She lashes out at Jill repeatedly. She begins talking to herself. While examining the painting again the following day, a large stone angel crashes to the floor, shattering. Michael discovers in the wreckage a large double-edged dagger, exactly like the one in the painting. Later, the Contessa reveals to Michael what she knows about the painting. She tells him about a little girl who died 200 years ago. A little girl named Emilia.
This is one of those films that is either going to infuriate or fascinate. Looking for action? Forget it. There isn't any. Looking for lots of supernatural goings-on? Well, you can forget that too as the majority of spooky stuff happens in the last 15 minutes. Looking for a well-paced, well-acted, beautifully shot slow-burner? Then this is your picture. While it's unlikely to raise many goosebumps, THE NIGHT CHILD does manage to tell an interesting story and tell it very well, complete with gorgeous scenery and a beautiful Stelvio Cipriani score. Dallamano's sure directorial hand crafts a wonderfully solid film to watch.
The only real problem with the film lies in the mysterious painting. Often In films where a piece of imagined art is central to the film, the piece of art (how shall I put it?) looks downright amateurish. Needless to say, the painting in this film makes the fresco in THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS look like a Monet. Dallamano isn't blind to the fact however. He allows Michael to make the same observation. When we finally see the painting, he remarks that it isn't very good but that it catches the eye. Well, that it does, but not because it's a good painting. It's only because we're constantly scanning it with our eyes trying to find clues to the mystery of the plot.
And what of the plot? Well, as I already mentioned, it contains very little action or scares, but I found it to be extremely engaging. There's enough Freudian weirdness going on to fill seven or eight reviews (the father / daughter relationship is anything but normal and the finale raises all kinds of questions I'd rather not go into) and the low-key approach allows for the revelations to feel earned. We're not just tossed plot point after plot point and charging from one scene to the next. We invest a good deal of time in getting to know Michael, Emily and Joanna (not so much Lisa, but I don't think I'm really spoiling anything in saying that she doesn't make it to the midway point) and the story works better because of it. There's an element of tragedy here and it is essential to the overall effect of the film. If this were simply another cheap-o demon possession flick made by any other Italian gun-for-hire, all of that would have been lost. But Dallamano keeps things much more grounded in terms of momentum so the pay off is much, much more satisfying.
This is also a film where the performances simply need to work. With so little in the way of action, we're basically left with a film that is 3/4ths character development. It helps tremendously that Nicoletta Elmi is playing the role of Emily. From DEEP RED and LE ORME to WHO SAW HER DIE? and FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, Elmi was one of the best child actors working in Italian genre film. Her performance is rather restrained and she manages to create a great deal of sympathy. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag of character actors (the American Joanna Cassidy, the British Richard Johnson, Italian beauty Ida Galli, the Russian born Lila Kedrova), all of whom create characters that don't feel like one-dimensional stock characters.
And then there's Massimo Dallamano. I suppose by now you're getting the feeling that I'm a fan. I am. I most definitely am. In his very short directing career, he made some truly great films. While THE NIGHT CHILD doesn't reach the heights of WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, COLT 38 SPECIAL SQUAD or WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, it is still a remarkably good looking and well directed film. Hopefully reading this will encourage you, Dear Reader, to seek out some of his films. They deserve to be seen and Dallamano deserves to be lifted out of the ranks of the forgotten filmmakers.