The Night Child (Il medaglione insanguinato or The Cursed Medallion) was one of many 1970s Italian horror movies inspired by the success of The Exorcist. This 1975 offering, directed by Massimo Dallamano, was actually an Anglo-Italian co-production and it’s one of the best movies of this genre.
Richard Johnson plays Michael Williams, a BBC documentary film-maker making a film about the diabolic in painting. He travels to Italy to complete his documentary, accompanied by his daughter Emily (Nicoletta Elmi) and Emily’s governess, Jill Perkins (Ida Galli).
Michael’s wife had died in a fire not all that long before. Emily is troubled by nightmares as a result. The doctors advise him to take her with him to Italy, which turns out to be disastrously bad advice.
Michael is met at Rome Airport by his production manager, Joanna Morgan (Joanna Cassidy). The attraction between Michael and Joanna is obvious from the start and soon they’re having an affair. That immediately causes tension since Jill is clearly in love with Michael as well.
The Contessa Cappelli (Lila Kedrova) has supplied Michael with information on various paintings for his program. Among the slides she has sent him there is one that he becomes obsessed by, and it’s the one painting that the Contessa is either unable or unwilling to supply any information about. The Contessa tells him to forget the painting. This is sound advice but it is advice that Michael ignores. He is too strongly drawn to the painting.
Of course things start to go wrong when they get to Spoleto. Emily is increasingly unhappy and her nightmares are worse. Emily also takes a dislike to Joanna. Her behaviour has become more strange since Michael gave her an old medallion that he had originally given to his wife.
The Contessa tries to warn Michael that there is danger, that dark forces are at work, but Michael thinks of himself as a rational man free of belief in superstition. He ignores her warnings, with dire consequences.
The movie moves inexorably towards what seems likely to be a tragic outcome. This is subtle horror that has no intention of throwing buckets of blood at the audience. It relies on atmosphere, which it has in abundance.
Richard Johnson is very good. The whole cast is good in fact. There’s more characterisation in this movie than in most Italian exploitation movies. Dallamano had a reputation for working well with actors and he gets good performances from his entire cast, and especially from 11-year-old Nicoletta Elmi. Dallamano is not in a hurry to tell his story; he is prepared to take the time to let us get to know the characters. That’s not to suggest there are any problems with the pacing, which is in fact perfect for the story Dallamano is telling.
Dallamano’s movies always look good. He had started his career as a director of photography and he always took great pains to get the look of his movies just right. Even on limited budgets he was able to make movies that look polished and are always full of visual interest. He strikes just the right balance between story, visuals and characterisation. His premature death at the age of 59 robbed the Italian film industry of a major talent, a talent that remains under-appreciated to this day.
While the movie’s debt to The Exorcist is obvious, a point that is surprisingly often overlooked is the even larger debt it owes to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Both films deal with families trying to cope after the tragic death of a family member, both involve Americans in Italy who are not artists but are involved to some degree with the art world, both feature psychics who predict the eventual outcome. This movie certainly does not copy Don’t Look Now directly but visually there are quite a few scenes that are reminiscent of Roeg’s movie.
Arrow Films have presented this film in a superb anamorphic transfer and the DVD includes a brief but worthwhile documentary on the film.
Another classy piece of exploitation film-making from perhaps the most underrated of all Italian directors. Highly recommended.