OK, I'm gonna go out on a limb here, and make the assumption that any person who might be interested in reading a review of the 1980 French film "La Nuit de la Morte!" ("Night of Death!") is already aware that it is very much a horror picture (as if that morbid title, capped with its exclamation mark, could possibly leave any doubt). And that's important, because any discussion of this seldom-mentioned rarity is almost impossible without divulging at least one key plot twist, which transpires around 20 minutes in. I was first alerted to the very existence of this Gallic obscurity by the excellent reference volume "DVD Delirium 4," which describes the picture as "good, disreputable, down-and-dirty splatter with a unique French twist," and indeed, the film really might be a pleasant surprise for the jaded horror fan who is seeking out something different.
In the picture, the viewer meets a pretty redheaded woman named Martine (the tres appealing Isabelle Goguey), who, after a spat with her boyfriend, begins a new job, working as an attendant at the Deadlock House; a large, rambling mansion in the countryside currently being used as an old-age home. Martine, prophetically, says to herself "I don't think I'll last long here" upon meeting the home's crippled gatekeeper and learning some of the odd rules of the establishment. During her first day, Martine gets to know her co-worker, the upbeat and pleasant Nicole (Charlotte de Turckheim), as well as the wacky (but seemingly harmless) vegetarian seniors who reside in the establishment. Raphael Delpard, the director and co-screenwriter, keeps the mood light and the visuals bright and sunny during these initial 20 minutes, but yet, the viewer senses that something is amiss. And that feeling is most certainly borne out when the home's director/headmistress, Helene (chillingly well played by the imposing Betty Beckers), sits down at her piano and begins to sing one of the most mournful dirges ever heard in a horror picture ("We are afraid to see youth fly, and we are afraid to die...."), and especially when (here's the big spoiler) the seniors abduct Nicole from her room, slit her abdomen open in delectable close-up (fortunately, the special FX by Pascal Rovier are NOT too convincing here), and proceed to eviscerate her and gobble up her innards! Yes, the dotty elders here are all cannibals (although there is a LOT more to their dietary choices than mere epicureanism), and guess which redheaded morsel is next on their unique bill of fare! And as if this weren't enough for poor Martine to contend with, a maniac known as the Golden Needle Killer has recently been terrorizing the environs, offing his female victims by sticking knitting implements into their throats. Sacre bleu, indeed!
I must say, that moment when the elders suddenly gut Nicole and begin to chow down on her is truly a most shocking one, and I do regret even having to mention it. It is as if the viewer had been watching a lighthearted French comedy that has suddenly turned nightmarish on a dime (I mean, on a sou); Eric Rohmer suddenly morphing into George A. Romero! After that moment, the viewer is primed for just about anything to happen, and the film does not disappoint. It winningly maintains its tricky balancing act between creepy horror and comedic whimsy throughout, and Ms. Goguey is hugely responsible for the film's success. Her Martine is at once sexy (she even gives the viewer, and the Peeping Tom seniors, a full-frontal glimpse, in one startling scene), intelligent and intrepid; a total triumph for the young actress. The film revels in distinct touches of strangeness, such as when Martine spies on that crippled gateman, Flavien (Michel Flavius), and we see him pathetically crying and talking to a doll in his room; a sequence that may remind some of the Miss Lonelyhearts segment in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," only far, far sicker. Another classic horror thriller, "Rosemary's Baby," is also suggested here, when we see the seniors plying Martine with some kind of nutritional drink, for sinister purposes of their own. Pleasingly, "Night of Death!" manages to work in a DOUBLE surprise ending before it fades to black, and that remarkably mournful dirge (kudos, by the way, to the film's composer, Laurent Petitgirard) begins to play over the end credits. C'est juste trop morbide!
Further good news regarding "Night of Death!" is that the film can be seen today on a very nice-looking DVD via the fine folks at Synapse. As mentioned on the Eccentric Cinema site, it's "wonderful to see this little-known gem treated to such a fine transfer." I couldn't agree more. You may not want to handle a pair of knitting needles or visit a seniors center after watching the film, but it is one that you won't soon oublier, I assure you!