Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Night Child (1975)

Original title: Il medaglione insanguinato

Little Emily Williams (Italian horror's favourite red-headed child Nicoletta Elmi) hasn't been quite alright since her mother died in a mysterious burning incident. Although Emily's father, BBC documentarian Michael (Richard Johnson), and her nanny Jill Perkins (Evelyn Stewart) are doing their best to keep her safe and sane, the girl is still plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers from fits the family doctor diagnoses as "mental breakdowns". Emily has another one of those just before her Dad is supposed to travel to Italy for a documentary about paintings of the devil. Following a recommendation of said genius doctor, Michael takes Emily and Jill with him to Italy.

There, very strange things begin to happen. Emily's nightmares turn into daytime visions of herself - or a girl looking like herself - fleeing from badly made-up medieval peasants in full-on angry mob mode. It's a scene right out of a mysterious painting also containing a burning woman falling to her death just like Emily's mum did that her father has become fascinated with. The girl sometimes acts as if she were not herself, suddenly playing piano much better than she should be able to, or doing some of that "devil child" shtick. An amulet that belonged to the Emily's mother seems to have a strange influence on her, as if someone else would take possession of the girl's body sometimes. Might the amulet and the painting have something to do with each other?

The owner of the painting, Contessa Cappelli (Lila Kedrova), who fancies herself as something of a medium, utters dire warnings, at least.

Emily's mental health surely doesn't improve when Daddy falls for his local production assistant, Joanna Morgan (Joanna Cassidy), and it seems only to be a question of time until something violent will happen. When it does, it doesn't exactly hit the first person you'd have expected.

Massimo Dallamano's The Night Child is a bit of a problem child itself. While about half of the film shows Dallamano's great abilities at putting thematic weight behind the pictures of his film and making them beautiful at the same time, the film's other half is visually peculiarly bland and generic, even insecure, as if half the film had been directed by someone on the level of, well, Sergio Martino at his best, but the other half by Sergio Bland. For every brilliantly composed scene that uses real locations to conjure up a sense of the unreal and shows the film's setting in Italy as a place where the irrational and the supernatural seem perfectly natural, there's another scene done in the blandest of point and shoot styles to drag the film's elevated mood down again. The Night Child permanently wavers between a highly stylized aesthetic and the careless shrugging of a directing hack-job, never settling down into a mood or tone, therefore never becoming as immersive and dream-like as it would need to be to actually work. Then there are special effects so miserably bad even I am not able and willing to look beyond them.

The same puzzling schizophrenia also is at work in the film's script. There are some highly clever touches in the way Dallamano presents the past and the present mirroring each other, some moments of psychology that ring absolutely true, but there's also just as much useless back and forth - especially between Johnson and Cassidy - that does not have much of a function besides making the film longer. I'm quite used to European horror films of this era having pacing problems, or being uneven in tone, but The Night Child suffers much more from these problems than its peers, because it not only lacks focus, but also seems unsure what it wants to be about. There's a fantastic film about a very ill girl unable to cope with reality in there, and about a past that resonates so strongly with the present that the present can't help but take on its form, but watching The Night Child, I'm unsure if Dallamano wanted to make that film.

I'm pretty sure he didn't tell his actors either way: Johnson and Cassidy come over as just terribly bland (yes, that word again), unable to carry their part of the movie. This is especially problematic in Johnson's case because it would have been his job to help make Nicoletta Elmi's performance look better. Visually, the girl is quite right for her role, but her acting is as mawkish and fake as you'd expect from a child actor who's mostly left to cope for herself by her co-actors; although it has to be said that the scenes between Stewart and her are generally a bit better. Stewart and Lila Kedrova are the only two actors on screen (and I don't blame Elmi, she was after all only ten years old) who really seem interested in what they're doing.

Of course, given the parts of it that are beautiful and clever, The Night Child is far from being a bad film; it just feels like a failed effort at achieving something.


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