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Devil Story

a.k.a. Il était une fois le diable – Devil Story | Devil’s Story
directed by Bernard Launois
1985 | Condor Films Production | 72′ 

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend. You can find our collected annals of evil here. Today, I take a look at a film that may or may not have anything at all to do with the devil, but sure as hell contains Halloween costumes.

Somewhere in what I think is supposed to be Florida, but sure looks like a picturesque part of France to me, a guy (probably Pascal Simon) in a Halloween gnome mask that is supposed to be his face wearing a uniform jacket with SS insignia – so I think we can call him Adolf Gnome – randomly kills various people in rubber-gory ways.

After fifteen minutes of these shenanigans, the film cuts to a married couple driving through what might be the same area. They stop, and the woman (most probably Véronique Renaud) has a nasty encounter with a black cat that might at least in part be hallucinatory. Anyhow, it’s enough to drive her into the first of many bouts of hysteric screeching (therefore I dub her “Screechie”).

That very same night (I suppose), the couple is still driving around the countryside, having lost their way terribly. Fortunately, they come upon a gothic palace inhabited by two weird yet friendly members of the elderly demographic who invite them to stay the night. For some reason, Elderly Guy wears a camouflage outfit, but this sort of thing doesn’t invite comments here. The rather strange hosts ramble on about the terrible things that happen in the area “before, during and after the equinox” (which I translate into “always”) and then proceed to tell the young couple a pointless story (historical flashback the film can’t afford time!) about five brothers who lured a ship to its doom but somehow drowned in the proceedings, plus some stuff about their descendants supposedly having made a deal with the devil.

Remember Adolf Gnome? He is one of said descendants, living alone with his equally crazy elderly mum. The female half of our husband and wife protagonist team will eventually meet those two, for during the night, she is awakened by a black horse that makes one hell of a racket outside and will proceed to do so in the most annoying fashion throughout the rest of the movie. Obviously, Screechie decides to go out in her nightie and investigate. That decision is the beginning of an epic journey during whose course Screechie makes the acquaintance of Adolf Gnome and Mum (they think she looks like Gnome’s newly dead sister, so they decide to bury her alive), a mummy with a bulging crotch that randomly kills people and digs out said dead sister (she’s a zombie now, I think) to walk around holding hands with said dead sister, and has random shit happen to her.

Also featured are Adolf Gnome bringing fists to a hoof fight, the usefulness of powder kegs and petrol when confronted with the backside of a mummy, Elderly Guy’s epic (he’s shown to shoot at it for hours out of what I assume to be his starting gun – that does at least explain the infinite ammo) obsession with the black horse he declares to be “the Devil Beast”, the ship from the story, and a random (or rather, even more random) gotcha ending featuring the black cat from the beginning and a very hungry patch of ground.

 
 
 

It looks as if France during the 80s had its own little tribe of people making the really awesome kind of backyard horror films, the sort full of rubbery gore, random nonsense, and a narrative that makes most dreams look coherent. As my attempts at giving you a feel for the absurd randomness of its plot should have made clear, Bernard Launois’s Devil Story is a proud and unapologetic part of that group of films, leaving no brain undamaged and no narrative rule unbroken. It’s not as mind-expanding as N.G. Mount’s improbably awesome Ogroff, but it sure is a film doing its damndest to overwhelm its audience with pure weirdness.

If you want to be all serious about it, Devil Story‘s randomness is obviously influenced by European folklore and fairy tales. The black horse and black cat as creatures of the devil are important parts of that tradition, and stories about smugglers luring ships to their doom and paying for it later on are parts of many local folklores too. However, where fairy tales and folklore usually have quite clear thematic connotations and an understandable subtext, the film at hand just grabs some outward signifiers from the folk tales, adds impenetrable rambling, screeching, some rubbery gore, a mummy and a serial killer and calls it a story in a way that suggests the writer (not surprisingly also Bernard Launois) to be either twelve years old or under the influence of mind-expanding substances like wine or strong coffee. The whole project is awe-inspiring in its stubborn insistence on making no sense at all beyond “bad magical things that may have something to do with the devil – or not – happen to people in this area – or not”.

On the technical front, Devil Story is a curious beast. It’s well photographed in so far as Launois knows how to frame and block scenes and everything he – well DP Guy Maria – shoots looks rather picturesque, but everything else about the film is a (hot) mess. As already mentioned (and obvious), the narrative structure is more or less non-existent, with no really discernible plot, no characters (let’s not speak of the acting beyond giving Elderly Guy the day’s price for most excited line delivery), and no feeling of progression or dramatic escalation.

This problem is further emphasised by the most curious, a-rhythmic editing decisions – every possible moment of suspense is sabotaged by recurring, random cuts to the devil horse being an obnoxious – and very loud – animal, the Elderly Guy shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting, the horse, the shooting, etc, until the little structure there is just turns to goo, very much like the mummy’s lower lip once Screechie has ripped off a few of its bandages. And even if Launois could keep away from Elderly Guy’s horse adventures, all action scenes are so awkwardly staged, and so overly long, they become befuddling instead of exciting, with cause and effect obviously divorced from each other, actors and the things they are acting on clearly not at the same place at the same time, and the same little thing going on and on and on for seeming hours, turning moments that could have been semi-exciting highlights like the scene when Screechie is playing tug-of-war with a gravestone against Adolf Gnome’s Mum who is trying to bury her alive into improbable slogs through the swamps of time and space.

So, clearly and obviously, Devil Story is a horrible movie. And yet it’s also a fascinating and quite riveting artefact of filmmaking that cares so little about – or misunderstands – the way films are supposed to be made, to look and to feel it nearly invents its own filmic language, entering the space so beloved by a certain type of film fan (that is, me) where the objective badness of a movie turns into something quite loveable and beautiful. I know, I do like to go on about films feeling as if they came from another world/dimension, or were made by aliens who once watched a movie and are now trying to make their own, but that is still the best way I’ve found to describe films like Devil Story in all their glorious, unapologetic oddness.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

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