CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
I grew up with Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath,” an anthology film in three segments, the last of which (in the U.S. version) was a free adaptation of Alexei Tolstoy’s “The Family of a Vourdalak,” but I only recently had the opportunity of seeing Giorgio Ferroni’s “Night of the Devils,” a later film adaptation of the same story. They make for an interesting study in contrasts.
Bava’s adaptation is set in the 19th Century and is quite Romantic in both content and visual style. Ferroni’s film is set in what was then (1972) the present and is filmed in a more edgy, fragmented style. Bava’s film is firmly anchored by the commanding presence of Boris Karloff in one of his last great horror roles as Gorka, the strong-willed patriarch of a Russian peasant family. (In Tolstoy’s story the family are Serbs.) Ferroni’s film lacks an actor of Karloff’s stature and therefore his Gorka is more naturalistic in concept, he is an old man, gradually and grudgingly ceding control over his family to his eldest son, a strong surly type. Both films follow the basic “hook” of Tolstoy’s tale. Gorka has gone off alone to slay a vampire (a Turkish bandit/vampire in both Tolstoy and Bava, a female witch/vampire in Ferroni) who has terrorized the community and told his family if he doesn’t return by a certain time, they must not admit him into their midst, as he will have himself been transformed into a vampire. But he arrives home just as the fatal hour is striking. Has he turned or not? Of course in all three versions the family makes the mistake of admitting him. Bava films it almost as grand opera with a long shot of the aged, arthritic Karloff slowly shambling over a bridge that leads to the family farm. Bava films it almost as written with even Tolstoy’s dialogue, and Gorka’s demand that the barking family be killed taken directly from the story. Ferroni opts for a more naturalistic style in which Gorka simply returns, refuses food and retires for the night.
Tolstoy’s ill-fated family consisted of Gorka, his two sons, the older son’s wife and their two small boys and Gorka’s daughter Zdenka. In Tolstoy and in Bava the hero is a nobleman on a diplomatic mission who happens upon Gorka’s clan. In Ferroni he is a businessman whose car breaks down in an ominous forest near where the family lives. Bava simplifies things a bit by having a single grandson for Gorka to fondle, while Ferroni keeps both grandchildren, but turns them into girls. In all three versions the hero falls in love with Zdenka, but only in Bava’s version–the most romantic of the three–does he willingly allow Zdenka to vampirize him, proving Gorka’s assertion that nothing is as important as the family. He will join Gorka’s clan in their vampiric existence. In Tolstoy and in Ferroni the hero endures a nightmarish night in which he must fight his way free of the now vampiric family. Ferroni makes two important changes however. The oldest son, while still human, dispatches his father with a wooden stake, thus removing Old Gorka from the story, and Zdenka goes in search of her beloved, found wandering and incoherent and now confined to a mental institution. Zdenka claims she has nothing but love for him, and wants to help him to gain his release. But the hero, frantic to escape the last surviving vampire flees through the corridors of the asylum and when cornered by Zdenka, impales her. Only to discover to his horror that, unlike Gorka and the family members that he slew, she does not decompose into a corpse. Zdenka was still human, and loved him. Having murdered her, the hero lapses into total madness and is dragged off to his cell.