Code Red // 1975 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // October 1st, 2010
Keep telling yourself, "She's not just a child..."
Never give a creepy little girl a haunted medallion. Badass BBC documentary director Michael Williams (Richard Johnson, Zombi 2) learns this the hard way after giving his dead wife's prized necklace to his ginger-haired daughter, Emily (Nicoletta Elmi, Deep Red). When they abscond to Italy for Michael to direct an art history doc, he finds his daughter's behavior becoming increasingly peculiar. What is possessing her and what does it have to do with a mysterious, Satanic oil painting Michael finds himself obsessed with?
I wish I had a time machine or maybe some kind of Stargate that would allow me to travel back in time to Italy during the 1970s. Not our Italy, mind you, but the cinematic kind. I don't know why, but everything just seems cooler in Italian movies -- especially Italian horror movies. The clothes, the gorgeous women, the dubbed over British actors, the pulsating prog-rock scores, the crass amounts of graphic violence -- I'm in love with Italy, circa 1975, as plagued by razor blade slashing gigolo killers, cheaply made zombies, svelte model-actresses, stuffy British actors, and inexplicable psychics.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you gauge my sanity), I do not have a Stargate. If I want to visit the world of Italian horror movies, I have to fall back on my perennial favorites of the Italian horror movement -- Deep Red, The Beyond, Mario Bava's Shock, and now, The Night Child.
The Night Child is just as good as anything Bava, Lucio Fulci, or Dario Argento ever put out during their heyday. It is an unheralded classic of the subgenera; an elegant, intelligent, sexy, and original cash-in on Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist that deserves the attention of any fan of Italian horror movies.
Rather than go for the overdone, pea soup drenched rip-off scares of its "demon possession" kin, writer/driector Massimo Dallamano (What Have You Done To Solange) approaches the material from a psychological level, always leaving the audience in the dark as to whether Old Scratch has anything to do with the murderous Moppet. Is it a supernatural affliction? Is it bad parenting in action? You'll find yourself flip-flopping a lot thanks to a consistently surprising screenplay that will subvert your expectations in the best ways possible.
While the film pitches itself as a psychological family drama, the horror will kick in, believe me. There's plenty of scares to go around if you're willing to accept the slow burning narrative. The pace will alienate ADD suffering horror fans who require their films to start with a bang, but for those familiar with Italian horror, the graceful movement of the story will feel just right.
The Night Child, while a strongly plotted film, is less about ratcheting up constant tension and more about getting inside the creepy mind of the titular child. If you're looking for gobs of gore, go check out Fulci's back catalogue, because you won't find it here. If you're in need of a slickly directed, quasi-experimental child possession movie that ain't The Exorcist, brother, you've come to the right place.
As Massimo was a DP on classics like For A Few Dollars More, it comes as little surprise the film contains gorgeous, hypnotic flashbacks and dream sequences that are among some of the most visually impressive treats I've seen in my life. Combining the beautiful and the macabre seamlessly, images like a woman's charred body waving for help off of a balcony as her room burns will stay in your mind long after you've viewed The Night Child. It doesn't hurt that said images are accompanied by one of the best horror scores you're likely to hear, a combination of classical piano and throbbing rock that perfectly accentuates the broken minds and heart of The Night Child.
To say any more would run the risk of giving away the mystery. If there are flaws, it is the usual laundry list accompanying most '70s Italian film. The script's dialogue is stiff, though is redeemed often by improvisational flourishes from our actors (many of which come off quite successfully, to boot). Bad dubbing is a problem, especially with the title character, whose voice was clearly piped in by an adult actress in post. Some special effects shots are extremely cheesy (an often repeated 'falling off a cliff' shot being the most ridiculous), though easily forgiven based on sheer ambition. Finally, The Night Child herself comes off as thinly written and more than a little annoying before things start to heat up (without giving too much away). Just be patient, she gets a whole lot more interesting.
The screener DVD under review here is presented in 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The print here is far from flawless -- nicks, scratches, and color imbalances abound, but the image is sharp enough to chalk it up to poor source materials. The accompanying stereo track is strictly utilitarian, as per expected with releases like this. Extras include trailers and an interview with the film's star, Richard Johnson, who comes off as a drunken, pretentious, self-loathing British actor (big surprise, right). This is more than is typically included in Code Red's screener discs, so I'll take what I can get.
Of special note is the menu, which features the Vice President of Code Red crudely photo shopped into a cartoon port-a-john, replete with air-brushed feces smeared on his face. He pipes in a narration welcoming the audience to "Septic Cinema." I didn't stick around long enough to find out why. I hope this ill-informed choice is some sort of practical joke included for the screener, as it sends out the message that Code Red somehow considers The Night Child, well, shitty, which in comparison to the rest of the studio's catalog, it most certainly isn't.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated