Friday, June 28, 2013

Night of Death (1980)

The Movie: Martine (Isabelle Goguey), after months of unemployment, goes to start the job her fiancĂ© got her: a caretaker position at Deadlock House, a nursing home. She arrives a day early, and for some reason that seems to be a major problem. The stern director, Helene (Betty Beckers), initially claims that they don’t have the facilities for her yet; but she’s able to throw something together rather quickly. Even more surprised is Nicole (Charlotte de Turckheim), the woman who currently holds Martine’s position. Nicole’s not happy about Martine, because, despite Helen’s attempts to explain that she’s there to assist Nicole, Nicole’s convinced Martine’s her replacement.

Still, in spite of the rough start, Martine and Nicole wind up getting along and Martine starts learning the ropes of her new job. She has her work cut out for her, because there are all sorts or weird rules and restrictions: the new employee is not allowed to leave the grounds for the first two months, for one; or the fact that all the inmates are vegetarian, and the staff is expected to follow suit. And speaking of the inmates, they generally seem more suited for an insane asylum than a nursing home.

It turns out that Nicole was more right than she knew about Martine being her replacement. That night, while Martine is on a date with her fiancĂ© (Helen declares that since Martine doesn’t officially start work until the next day, she’s not yet subject to the not leaving the institution rule), the inmates gather in a solemn processional and meet with the creepy, limping groundskeeper, Flavien (Michel Flavius). The procession troops into Nicole’s room, where they grab her from her bed and drag her to a secret basement under the kitchen. There, they lay her across a slab, slit her throat, and cut open her nubile chest and belly. Then Helene, Flavien, and the inmates reach in, pull out organs, and have a ghoulish feast.

When Martine discovers that Nicole has disappeared the next morning, Helene tells her that Nicole threw a fit about her being hired to the point of being unbearable, and was subsequently dismissed. The story doesn’t ring true with Martine, however; as it doesn’t jibe with the extremely friendly and conciliatory note Nicole left her. Martine discovers more clues that Nicole’s disappearance wasn’t as Helene would have her believe. Her life becomes a major balancing act between trying to figure out what’s really happening at Deadlock House on one hand, and coping with its inhabitants’ increasingly disturbing behavior on the other. And meanwhile, time ticks by; two months pass rather quickly, and said inhabitants all eagerly look forward to the coming of the 28th…

The Review: By this time, while it’s probably stereotyping, I’ve come to expect a certain pattern for end of the ‘70s European horror films: Style and mood over a coherent storyline. Copious nudity. Killings that tend to be more dramatically shocking or mean-spirited than graphically gory. Weirdness for weirdness’ sake. I was expecting all this with Night of Death, but it’s not what I got. Not that I’m complaining, I was just a little surprised.

Exploitation-wise there was gore, and one or two scenes of it were more graphic than expected. However, it still wasn’t gratuitous; used only when it was needed. Likewise, there wasn’t all that much nudity (I will admit to being a little disappointed about that); and what there was served the plot. As for the plot itself, it was extremely straightforward and coherent. There were some definite moments of weirdness, mood and style; but the plot took precedent.

The core of the plot is revealed very quickly; Helene, Flavien and the inmates of Deadlock House are all members of a cannibal cult, and the need for caretakers and ridiculous rules are a ruse to get a prospective meal in and then fatten her up before they eat her. However, there are a few genuine twists. What’s more, they’re very well woven into the main plot. None of them feel like the scriptwriter just pulled them out of his ass when he felt he needed a certain outcome; there is always a significant build-up and legitimate hint beforehand. Even the inevitable kicker ending doesn’t come out of nowhere; there are hints about it almost to the very beginning. They’re just presented as side-notes and throwaway details, however, so it’s possible to miss the significance of them until you think back on the movie once the end credits start to roll.

But what really got me were the heroine and her situation. Her situation struck a chord with me because it was all too familiar; this is my job. Admittedly, I deal with individuals with disabilities instead of geriatrics, and I babysit them at their jobs instead of taking care of them at home. Still, there are more than a few similarities. Ultimately both are the same field, taking care of people who, for whatever reason, are unable to take care of themselves. Also, I’ve had some experience at nursing homes in my life; and the inmates of Deadlock House are far more my clients than they are those of nursing home staff.

Here’s the main thing about working in healthcare, particularly this specific corner of it: it could drive a saint to commit murder. I’m not exaggerating. Healthcare has one of the highest turnover rates, largely due to stress and burnout. I’ve known no end to coworkers who’ve left because they couldn’t take it anymore. Martine’s experiences working at Deadlock House (not counting the cannibalism) resonate with my own work experiences far more than any other movie I’ve seen.

The first major issue lies in dealing with the clients (that’s what we officially call our charges at my job). The first thing to remember is that these are individuals who are even more blatantly dysfunctional than your average human being; otherwise they wouldn’t need the care in the first place. This can make even seemingly everyday interactions infinitely more complex. Now, lest readers think I’m being too harsh, let me point out that I have a lot of experience in this from both ends. On the one hand I have been gifted with Asperger's, A.D.D., mild Tourette’s, cancer, and various other conditions that the gods, in their infinite sadism, decided I was worthy to have bestowed upon me. I’m very high functioning, but I understand intimately the need for accommodation and being unable to comprehend “proper” social interactions.

On the other hand; no matter what your problems, there is a limit as to how much of your actions you can blame on your handicaps. No matter how much of the short end of the stick you got, at a certain point it all comes down to your choices and actions. One thing never fails to amaze me is my society’s tendency toward overcompensation. I concur that we have treated those with disabilities horribly in the past; and that they are human beings fully deserving of the dignity that comes with that. Hell, I firmly believe that just being human automatically entitles you to handicaps and disabilities; some are just more obvious or socially acceptable than others. However, people have a habit of forgetting that it is entirely possible to have a disability, and still be an asshole.

One of my best and dearest friends, who has worked in this field far longer than I have, comments on one incident early in our relationship where I was appalled about how she was venting about a client, even saying “that’s a horrible thing to say about your clients.” She points out that ever since I started this job, she’s never heard me say anything like that again. I’ve had my own experiences with that; once my brother told me, shocked, “Nathan, that’s a horrible thing to say about retarded people!” However, whenever I’ve expressed those exact same sentiments to individuals who’ve actually worked in the field, the response I’ve always gotten was some variant of “yep, welcome to the club.”

So to repeat, I know Martine’s charges all too well. And I find the way the movie depicts them extremely believable. At first they just seem amusing. For example, one of the patients (as per usual I can’t recall his name) is always knitting a red something or other. When Martine asks, he explains that he is “knitting Revolution.” Later in the movie, when he has been punished by the cult for misbehavior, Martine finds him knitting in black instead. When she asks, he responds that “the Revolution is in mourning.”

However, as the movie goes on their behavior toward Martine gets more and more inappropriate. For example, blatantly looking in her window while she undresses. One patient in particular exemplifies this; Mr. Leon (Jean Ludow), an old man who’s usually in a wheelchair even though he can walk perfectly, and who’s always playing with a variety of toys and magic tricks. He revels in using them to be obnoxious. At first he’s amusing, but very quickly it’s obvious that Leon is a major asshole. And it should also be noted that while Martine shows a patience throughout the movie that would shame most saints, by the end she’s getting very fed up with all the crap.

It’s extremely difficult already figuring out the line between where to accommodate for disabilities and where to hold someone accountable for their actions. It’s so much more so when the line is drawn for you. Watching Nichole deal with her charges, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. She tells them exactly what needs to be said, and doesn’t sugar coat it. She even slaps Leon at one point when he crosses a line. I’d get in so much trouble for doing that, and I’ve had clients who need far more than a slap.

The second major issue is dealing with the bureaucracy of the job. One of the most notable things I’ve obtained in the last 5+ years is a deep and utter loathing for the word “professional” and all its derivatives. From the context it always seems to be used in in contemporary society, my definition for professional is “appearance for appearance’s sake, whatever the cost.” I’m sure plenty will argue that, but I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary. I understand the need for some focus on appearances, considering that we are taking care of vulnerable members of society, but at a certain point it just becomes ridiculous. Except for the fact that this was in the context of a horror movie, I really didn’t see anything suspicious of the rules Martine is expected to follow. Considering all the ludicrous expectations I’ve had to deal with in the name of “professionalism”, not to mention all the ones women have had to deal with throughout history due to their gender, it just seemed like business as usual. The only real difference is that professionalism is usually implemented in spite of potential harms; in this case it’s used to hide them.

Something that surprised me halfway through the movie was when I realized that I was actively hoping for Martine to survive. Now, partly, as I lay it out above, I identified with her situation. I will also admit that I was in love from the moment that I saw she was a French-speaking redhead. However, there was a bit more to it. Through her actions, Martine reveals herself to be a genuinely nice and good-natured person, who’s only mistake is winding up in a nasty situation. Following that, watching how she handled the situation further endeared her to me. Martine behaves in a truly competent manner; and even when she’s caught (which she is several times), she coolly provides a rational excuse for what she is doing. She only truly freaks out once, and it’s a situation that I’m sure would cause any of us to freak out. Even then, she is able to do what needs to be done.

Finally, I would just like to add that Night of Death has a few truly scary and beautiful set-pieces. The stand-out for me is the scenes where the inmates gather for their ghoulish feasts. They walk out into the hall in a column, all dressed up, moving quietly by implacably while an eerie song plays on the soundtrack.

So in conclusion, Night of Death is a decent and enjoyable little horror movie. Well made, eerie and atmospheric, but with a definite plot, it’s worth watching. I just wish that certain elements of it didn’t feel so familiar; but I have personal issue to blame for that more than the movie.