Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Devil Story (1985)

Director: Bernard Launois
Screenplay: Bernard Launois
Cast: Véronique Renaud, Marcel Portier, Catherine Day, Nicole Desailly, Christian Paumelle, Pascal Simon

[April 2016 Update]: Due to the unfortunate end of the website Videotape Swapshop, I'll have to replace certain links that I had to reviews for the site with the whole article, unedited but possibly with footnotes if need be. For these reviews, which were written differently, I'll have to create a Frankenstein-like hybrid that will be structurally ugly but is the only way to get the whole of the necessary content together in one page.]

After viewing Devil Story, it'll be possible for a staunch hater of Jean Rollin to appreciate his work. Even Zombie Lake (1981). That's not to dismiss Devil Story - I can no longer say horrible things about films, including those I hate, for their literal existence, knowing more of how difficult it is to make films, and Devil Story was a complete and utterly baffling hoot in hindsight. But you're going to scratch your head wondering what the hell is going on upon viewing it. It's impossible to create a cohesive narrative outline, so instead I'll give you all a sketch of events that take place. A malformed man - who strangely looks like American comedian Steve Wright after a bad day and inexplicably in a Nazi uniform jacket - is killing people and being hostile to camping tents, but after ten minutes or so, this is pushed to the side, the man a side character in a different plot with his mother. A couple end up stuck in a countryside mansion where things are amiss. You know things are amiss because Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach plays whenever something sinister is afoot; an instantly recognisable piece, it's also modest in telling you that things are going to get spooky.

The man of the house suggests the sinister happenings are to blame on a black horse, standing in a field and trying to blow it's head off with a shotgun, with unlimited shells and standing out there all night to turn it to glue. The woman of the couple wanders off in the night, meeting Steve Wright's unfortunate doppelganger, evoking Zombie Lake for me in his uniform jacket and Devil Story being a French film, striking fear in others for these reason that remind them of Zombie Lake. He tries to kill her along with his mother as they are in the middle of shenanigans in a graveyard with their late sister/daughter. A mummy appears. A back-story of a shipwrecked boat and lost treasure is brought up earlier in the running time. The mummy brings the Steve Wright lookalike's dead sister back from the grave, played by the same actress who plays the main female character, but in a bed sheet and giant oversized wig. The man of the mansion keeps missing the horse, which we see through various rapidly edited shots galloping around in multiple directions. The mummy walks slowly to an unknown destination - evoking John Landis in the TV documentary The Perfect Scary Movie (2005)1 wanting a character in a mummy film to shout "Walk away! Walk away!" whenever one is in danger of the Egyptian dead. Apparently the mummy is the bringer of pure evil, for unknown reasons, but the man is far more concerned with lining the horse with shotgun lead, which we don't see an onscreen conclusion of. The shipwrecked boat suddenly appears, thus signalling a tentative final act to a film with borders onto a narrative rather than actually have one. The film is seventy two minutes long, a very obscure genre film from the continent that is a series of un-connecting content. It certainly has the material within it for a film of interest - killers, a mummy, a creepy mansion, a graveyard, a fight between a horse and the Steve Wright lookalike where the horse lands blows Riki-Oh would be proud of - but the combination is so intangential altogether that it's amazing Devil Story actually exists in its form. Even as a film from the eighties, it's far more vague in its content than arty horror films, and far from dismissing the film, liking it actually, it's still something I scrutinise with my brow raised high in puzzlement.

How does one review hammy dubbing acting? How does the same minimalist style of Jean Rollin, about mood, become this odd, vague mass of mere scenes? Why isn't the bonus materials for a French DVD - as even an obscurity like this that will divide many gets a cult around it, logically in its home of origin - translated and made available so I can find out how the film came to be and what the content means? It's clearly in the tone of dream logic horror film, but it doesn't have the sense and mood of a dream, rather the sense instead of floating through various events that merely happen. Bernard Launois prolongs inconsequential moments for other films for lengthy minutes. You will see a lot of long moments of characters groaning in pain and losing blood, even when they're already dead, the film cutting back and forth to the groaning and bleeding as another moment takes place around it. The gore is really a centre piece, though it feels closer to the Herschell Gordon Lewis school of organs plopping out or pieces dangling off. Around it are these lengthy scenes of time passing and off juxtapositions taking place that create a misshapen combination between the two sides of the film's personality. Openly, I wonder what the heck I've seen, and see that this will a very unexpected film for many to sit through, including people who watch films of this ilk.

Devil Story has an ending that repeats to the beginning, a Möbius strip, and it's not a spoiler because it will baffle many further. Large parts of Devil Story are repetitious. Or characters fumbling around or trying to attack each other. Or realising they've used all the spare gasoline to touch someone ablaze. There is a lot of memorable moments in the film's favour. Also the entire perplexing nature of the film is memorable in itself. And I ask myself, viewing a film like this, just how further and obscurer I can get into European horror cinema. France's horror output is more prolifically known for within the last decade, and through Jean Rollin and Jess Franco's occasional co-productions. There's a great film called Baby Blood (1990) too. But there was little I knew of aside from these originally when I was getting into European cult cinema, and now knowing of Devil Story's existence and various films scattered throughout the country's cinema sporadically, I wonder what low budget oddities of a French type are hidden online or on a multi region DVD player somewhere else. I can only look at Devil Story, writing about it here, with perplexity and admiration for the director and everyone involved for doing something I never expected to see.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
Just because a film is random and has no plot doesn't mean it would get on this list.  They could be tiresome instead. This is really an issue with films that try to be deliberately atonal and don't care about a logic to any of its content, thus leading to many films that, as I view them, I want to gouge my eyes out with a pencil. This is different for how compelling random it is with an internal logic of its own, a series of events that just happen and never becomes tedious but more compelling in its ridiculous lack of meaning to me. It's speaking in some form but I cannot understand what it's saying It's Jean Rollin if he lost his mind, which is amazing to think exists.

1 A Channel 4 documentary I grew up with that, even if it was pretty glib in tone, did do a nice job in trying to catalogue horror cinema over the decades from Dracula (1931) to Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Its effect on me having recorded it off TV and rewatching it multiple times in terms of being a horror fan cannot be ignored. 

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