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Horror mystery about the residents of a Louisiana castle who are being murdered by a masked killer. When the family arrives for the reading of Marion's will, his wife is strapped to the face of a cliff and drowned by the tide. More murders follow, and as Inspector Bore (Vicente Roca) investigates, he discovers some dark secrets in the family's past. Written by
Gothic and atmospheric period-set Giallo from the master of exploitation
Night of the Assassins (1976) is my second dip into the murky pool of Jess Franco; a filmmaker noted for his lurid sleaze, vulgar exploitation and incredibly low-budget style. Unfortunately for me, the two films of Franco's that I have experienced thus far have been largely devoid of the sex and depravity that his work is so often noted for; instead, finding the director attempting more worthy subject matter with restraint and integrity. My first experience of Franco was with the film Devil's Island Lovers (1973); a low-key and ultimately unremarkable treatise on political corruption, dictatorship and the horrors of the death penalty. Although it is worth noting that that particular film exists under several alternative titles, such as The Lover's of Devils Island and Female Quarters - with each version featuring more gore, sex and sleaze, to the extent that Female Quarters is essentially a lesbian-themed women in prison film - the version that I saw was tastefully done, devoid of sex and placed the emphasis entirely on the characters and the narrative.
Night of the Assassins follows a similar ideology to the film aforementioned, creating the odd notion of an exploitation film without the exploitation, but regardless, presenting Franco as a more competent and intelligent filmmaker than his reputation for more-lurid and sleazy pictures like Vampyros Lesbos (1970), Female Vampire (1973) and Barbed Wire Dolls (1975) would suggest. With this in mind, Franco presents us with a number of interesting characters, an appealing and linear story, some tasteful (though heavily over-dubbed) performances and an overall approach to the direction that is stylish, without becoming entirely laboured. As with Devil's Island Lovers, the budget was obviously at a bare minimum, but despite this, Franco and his crew are still able to inject some impressive style and unforgettable atmosphere into the film, as well as conveying a mostly authentic sense of period detail that is germane to the plot. In keeping with many other Euro exploitation films of this era, the story at hand has literary pretensions, with the initial set up of Night of the Assassins being based partially on the Edgar Wallace novel The Cat and the Canary; though in true exploitation style, the credits cite Edgar Allan Poe as the actual source, no doubt in an attempt to pull in audiences with the obvious macabre connotations that Poe's work would suggest.
Despite the opportunities presented by the story for Franco to wreak bloody mayhem, the presentation of the violence here seems entirely restrained. Whether or not there are other versions out there of this particular film - ala Devil's Island Lovers - is unknown; however, based on the version that I did see, the combination of subtle direction, intelligent plotting and that low-key atmosphere works incredibly well at drawing us deeper into the story and into this hotchpotch of idiosyncratic characters. The emphasis of the narrative is built largely upon the "whodunit" characteristics of detective fiction, with a large cast of characters gathering at a single location, only to be subsequently picked off, one by one, in a manner that recalls the ten little Indians, as the detective tries desperately to solve the central mystery before the last body is found. With this narrative device at work, the shadow of the Italian Giallo genre is also present, with Night of the Assassins recalling elements of Mario Bava's The Evil Eye (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) and most prominently Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).
Although the film won't be to all tastes, I found it memorable and entertaining despite the obvious technical limitations and budgetary restraints. There are some solid performances, particularly from Alberto Dalbés as the enigmatic Major Brooks, Vincente Roca as the beleaguered Inspector Bore and a reserved turn from Franco's number one girl Lina Romay as the sort of heroine Rita Derian; a woman who may or may not be a suspect herself! Night of the Assassins certainly isn't a masterpiece, and I can understand how some viewers would find it lacking or without interest, but for me, it slips nicely into the sub-genre of the stalk and slash literary thriller, with Franco creating some fine set-pieces, a great atmosphere, memorable images and that iconic skull mask.
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