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.

A Trip to the Moon – in color

The color restoration of A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is available as a limited edition 2-disc (Blu-ray/DVD) Steelbook from Flicker Alley, and can also be purchased through Amazon.com.

Note (4/2/2012): In addition to the missing narration It has been noted by one person (both at the Blu-ray.com forums and in a comment to this article) that the Robert Israel score is out of sync on the black and white version of the film, but this is most certainly not the case on my Blu-ray. The sync is just fine in my copy, including the punctuation of the gun firing, the landing on the moon, and so on. The same has reported sync issues with The Astronomer’s Dream, a problem my disc is free from as well.

As a film, A Trip to the Moon should need no introduction. Arguably the best of the longer form stories to emerge from pioneer Georges Méliès’ prolific turn-of-the-century dream factory, A Trip to the Moon is both one of the earliest of literary adaptations for the screen (freely skimmed from Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, as well as a contemporary stage production of the same, and H.G. Well’s The First Men in the Moon from 1901) and a proving ground for early on-screen special effects. Starring Méliès himself as a bearded professor, the 13 minute adventure concerns a group of astronomers and the fantastic things they encounter after being shot to the Moon in a massive shell. Told with thrilling momentum and boundless imagination, A Trip to the Moon still enchants as pure cinema even as it celebrates its one hundred and tenth year.

It’s impossible to overstate the amount of time and effort that went into restoring this color edition of A Trip to the Moon (the film was one of many that was made available both in original black and white and elaborate hand-colored editions), a process that stretched from 1999 to the premiere of the finished restoration at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. A labor of love elaborated upon at length in the 2011 documentary The Extraordinary Voyage (which is included in this dual format release), this hand-colored edition was painstakingly pieced together from a badly decomposed Spanish print (the reel was essentially a solidified puck when it arrived at the facilities of France’s Lobster Films) with its missing pieces compiled from the complete sections of various black and white prints. Even for such a brief film, no more than a few handfuls of shots all told, it was a truly monumental undertaking.

As exemplified by the comparison above, taken from The Extraordinary Voyage, the end result is impressive indeed – particularly when the extreme age and impossibly corrupted quality of the only available hand-colored source are taken into account. A Trip to the Moon has been given life anew, and the brazenly artificial color plays well into the similarly unbelievable design of the film itself.

Previously noted for their releases of such silent classics as Abel Gance’s La Roue and their DVD collections of Méliès’ short films, niche label Flicker Alley have now made the color restoration of A Trip to the Moon available for home consumption by way of an elegant limited edition Steelbook containing both Blu-ray and DVD presentations of the film and The Extraordinary Voyage.

Of all the classic cinema to make its way to Blu-ray thus far this may well be of the most historical importance, and Flicker Alley have done well by it in the video department. A Trip to the Moon is presented in both restored color and black and white here (1080p for each), and looks quite good in both instances. The color version flickers, shakes, and worse at times, but likely represents the best that could ever be expected from the materials at hand (that a near-solid chunk of century-old celluloid could be made watchable at all is, for lack of better words, miraculous). The black and white is similarly imperfect but improves upon the color version in terms of contrast and clarity. As with the color version I find it impossible to complain. A Trip to the Moon looks better in both editions than I’ve ever seen it look, allowing me to spot some details I’d never noticed before (like the outlandish faces made at points by the cast), and the texture of the more precise black and white edition is tremendous.

Both versions of A Trip to the Moon, The Extraordinary Voyage, and all of the disc’s supplements are housed on a single layer BD25 with reasonable success. The Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded video is set to an average bitrate of 17.6 Mbps throughout, but the image goes generally unperturbed by the digital artifacts expected from such a low figure. Zooming in revealed some minor blocking in the film texture, but nothing that distracted from my viewing. While I’d have appreciated higher average bitrates and a push to dual layer, what Flicker Alley have provided is perfectly satisfactory.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

The one downfall of the presentation, strictly with regards to the color restoration, is the audio selection. As was no doubt contractually stipulated when Flicker Alley licensed the restoration for distribution, the only audio option for this version of the film is a new soundtrack composed by the French duo Air (presented in lossless DTS-HD 5.1). Derivative of a variety of popular artists and rarely, if ever, appropriate for the material in question, Air’s music is distracting at best and downright awful at worst.

The black and white version of A Trip to the Moon has its own audio troubles, though they’re blessedly of a more temporary nature. Due to a production error, the primary audio selection for the black and white feature – the original orchestral score by Roger Israel accompanied by the original English narration written by Méliès – does not actually include the narration. Flicker Alley have have been quick to address the issue and will be mastering new Blu-ray discs to resolve it (the DVD is unaffected). These discs will be sent out by request to customers who have purchased the package. You’ll find the “Disc Replacement Form” linked in towards the bottom of the company’s A Trip to the Moon page. Two other audio options are also included for the black and white feature – a ‘troupe of actors’ voicing various characters to piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges, and lone Frederick Hodges piano accompaniment. The latter two options are presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0, while the defective primary track is Dolby Digital 2.0 – each sounded just fine to these ears, missing narration notwithstanding. There are no subtitles.


Addendum 05/07/2012: Flicker Alley’s replacement Blu-ray disc arrived earlier today, and a quick look shows the narration is now present for the Black and White version (though some have complained that the Robert Israel score is out of sync, neither of my now two Blu-ray copies have that issue). In terms of overall specs the new disc appears identical to the original, and our with regards to the rest of the presentation still stand.


The supplemental package for the release is quite strong, though the primary supplement is arguably more a co-feature. The Extraordinary Voyage, a 66-minute documentary that tracks the ups and downs of George Méliès’ brief cinematic career and relates the details of the restoration of A Trip to the Moon, premiered alongside Méliès’ film at Cannes 2011 and it’s lovely to have here for home viewing. The documentary was produced in HD and is presented as such on this Blu-ray, with audio presented in DTS-HD 5.1. Far less interesting is a 10-minute interview with Air (HD, 16-bit LPCM 2.0) on their dubious contribution, in French with English subtitles.

Flicker Alley have also included two thematically appropriate films from Méliès. The first, and best, is The Astronomer’s Dream, a delightfully eccentric 3-minute piece that has a bearded astronomer tormented by both a devil and a gigantic carnivorous moon. Originally produced in 1898, The Astronomer’s Dream may be the oldest thing yet to hit Blu-ray. The second film, 1907’s The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon, is indicative of Méliès in his waning years. Longer at 10 minutes, but not to any good purpose, the film has a professor and his students observing the eponymous Eclipse and other celestial phenomena. Both films are presented in 1080p HD, but are upscaled from standard definition transfers and present with the expected video artifacts (ghosting, aliasing). Despite this The Astronomer’s Dream looks perfectly presentable, while The Eclipse shows more of its SD video roots. Audio for each (musical accompaniment only) is presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0.

The Astronomer's Dream

The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon

Though the Steelbook phenomenon has never really caught on in the US, even those who dislike the format will have a hard time decrying Flicker Alley’s beautiful work. The G2 (standard Blu-ray packaging height) Steelbook comfortably houses both the Blu-ray and DVD as well as a booklet of film stills and notes excerpted from Gilles Duval and Séverine Wemaere’s book A Trip to the Moon Back in Color. The wonderful cover is based upon an illustration by Méliès himself, and ranks as one of the more attractive packaging designs I’ve ever encountered.

Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray / DVD issue of A Trip to the Moon isn’t perfect, but its many positives more than make up for its few shortcomings (the biggest of which – the missing narration on the black and white version – is in the process of being resolved). I’ve had the release pre-ordered since I first learned of it in mid-January, and even after two and a half months of anticipation I wasn’t disappointed. Méliès in HD may not be a necessary fixture on the average home video shelf (though it should be!), but if you have even a passing interest in cinema history then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. Recommended.

The color restoration of A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is available as a limited edition 2-disc (Blu-ray/DVD) Steelbook from Flicker Alley, and can also be purchased through Amazon.com.

Rapture

Year: 1965  Company: 20th Century Fox / Panoramic Productions   Runtime: 104′
Director: John Guillermin   Writers: Ennio Flaiano, Stanley Mann, Phyllis Hastings
Music: Georges Delerue   Cinematography: Marcel Grignon
Cast: Patricia Gozzi, Dean Stockwell, Melvyn Douglas, Gunnel Lindblom
Disc company: Twilight Time   Video: 1080p 2.35:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 1.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 (All Region)   Release Date: 12/13/2011
Rapture is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com
Reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight TIme.

Young Agnes, an adolescent malcontent struggling to reconcile her childish nature with her budding desires, lives in isolation in her widowed father’s modest seaside estate. One day, after her father (himself obsessed with ruminations on “compassionate justice”) dashes her favorite doll on the coastal rocks in a fit of misplaced rage (“You’re not a child!” he screams), Agnes decides to construct a new companion for herself – a scarecrow made from one of her father’s old suits. A few days later Agnes, her father and their housekeeper witness the violent escape of a jailed man. When one stormy night that same man arrives in the family shed, having stolen the clothes from the scarecrow to hide himself from the authorities, Agnes becomes convinced that her manufactured companion has come to life.

The stranger-on-the-run is welcomed into the presumed safety of the home by the father, the housekeeper, and especially Agnes, though each for very different reasons. The promiscuous housekeeper takes him on as a lover, while the father uses him as a testing ground for his legal theories. Agnes, meanwhile, remains convinced that he is hers alone, and after throwing off his plans for escape (both from the police and the home) develops a more intimate relationship with him.

It’s rare anymore that I see a film so uniquely its own that it leaves me with no starting point from which to discuss it, but such a film is Rapture, director John Guillermin’s bleak yet sumptuous adaptation of Phyllis Hastings’ novel Rapture in my Rags. Transposed from the novel’s English countryside to the Brittany Coast to sate 20th Century Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck’s taste for young French talent Patricia Gozzi, who would soon disappear from the film business all together, and produced by a largely French crew with American actors Melvyn Douglas and Dean Stockwell and Swede Gunnel Lindblom filling out the leading roles, Rapture is a film of strange international pedigree. That it was directed by a man (fittingly an Englishman of French lineage) best known for his contributions to the super-productions of mega-producers Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno) and Dino De Laurentiis (King Kong and the much maligned King Kong Lives) only makes it stranger still.

Of course it’s not just the cultural diversity of the production that makes this film so unique, as good an initial indicator of such as that might be, but its substance and artifice as well. Ostensibly a coming-of-age drama about a confused young woman and the father whose misplaced anger threatens to obliterate their tenuous family ties, but with darkly fantastic overtones, a penchant for forbidden romance and art-house panache to spare, Rapture never comes across as being the usual cinema fare. Indeed, from the opening shots of a giggling bride on the way to her wedding ceremony to the final closing fade, I’m still not at all sure what to make of it, though it’s certainly a film I’ll never forget.

Portrayed magnificently by Patricia Gozzi, who was just fifteen at the time, Rapture‘s Agnes is the very embodiment of bewildered adolescence, and struggles to find herself under the domineering auspices of a father who at once demands she behave as a woman while treating her as though she were a child. Having spent most of her life out of school and in social isolation, with the threat of a nearby loony-bin forever looming, Agnes is predictably unprepared for the outside world. Her brief encounters with modern France, both during an early wedding and a later elopement, are claustrophobic, nightmarish affairs, with the trappings of metropolitan life (buzzing neon, busy streets, and dense, impenetrable crowds) skewed into horrific sights and sounds by her maladjusted perspective. By contrast her life on the depopulated French coast is appropriately rapturous, dysfunctional family dynamics aside, and spent splashing in the waves and reaching out for the greater freedom of the gulls fluttering above. Still the specter of her father (a troubled turn by the veteran Melvyn Douglas) lurks, omnipresent, waiting to lash out at her for any petty grievance.

With a torrent of lightning and rain (and a bit of overt Christian symbolism) the escaped prisoner Joseph (an enigmatic Dean Stockwell, who plays his cards close) arrives, signalling change for the conflicted family whether it’s prepared for it or not. Though he compells the father to contemplate that which torments him, and the roots of his revulsion for his youngest daughter, it is with Agnes herself that the change becomes most obvious – and disquieting. Joseph’s tryst with the housekeeper (Gunnel Lindblom in a hefty supporting role) inspires a fit of jealous rage in the teenager, who takes to her presumed competition with a shovel in hand and a homicidal gleam in her eye. The housekeeper survives, but wastes no time in seeing herself out of her job, and it is with her exit that things take a turn for the uncomfortable.

Agnes becomes romantically entangled with Joseph, a man twice her age (literally in the case of Stockwell), and takes up the outward trappings of womanhood (curling her hair, and dressing up and so on). While the sexual aspect of the relationship, however tastefully restrained in its conveyance, is undeniably disturbing, I found Agnes’ sudden transformation into a homemaker to be even more so. Though clearly unprepared for such a development, Agnes runs away with Joseph to an oppressive one-room downtown hovel in which she dutifully takes up her domestic responsibilities. It’s a depressing development made none the less so by its transience, and as Joseph piles more and more relationship burdens on Agnes (like handling the couple’s finances) it becomes quite horrifying. Guillermin and director of photography Marcel Grignon capture the experience with uncomfortable, inorganic angles and aggressive montage that makes us long for the wide-open seclusion of the seaside every bit as much as Agnes, even though we know as well as her that, after all that’s transpired, things can never be the same as before.

Meticulously photographed in black and white CinemaScope and related in an intense, personal manner, Rapture is about as far removed from Guillermin’s big-money spectacles as I’d imagine possible. It also speaks more for the director’s not inconsiderable talents than any of his better known films. Rapture practically oozes art-house appeal, and with that in mind it’s difficult for me to believe that the film, largely ignored upon its initial release, hasn’t garnered more of a reputation in the 46 years since. Far be it from me to say whether it’s great film making or not – coming-of-age dramas, however strange, aren’t exactly my area of expertise, and I’m still scratching my head over this one – but it’s certainly something different, and a beautiful something at that. Given the present era of over-hyped mediocrity that’s more than enough for me.

The second of Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray series to be culled from the archives of 20th Century Fox, Rapture has finally received the quality home video presentation that has so long eluded it. Before I get into the technical details it’s worth noting that Rapture, like the rest of the Twilight Time catalogue, has been released as a limited pressing of 3000 and is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com.

Once again I’m left with very little room to complain. Rapture makes its high definition debut in a glorious 1080p transfer at the original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and though only single layered I can’t say that things suffer much for it. Marcel Grignon’s ace photography is wonderfully replicated here, with all its lush 35mm texture blessedly intact. There’s a wide variety of imagery to take in, from the most expansive of landscapes to the closest of faces and everything in between, and all of it is delivered in that true-to-film fashion I crave. Yes, there is some damage, unobtrusive printed white marks and a bit of dirt here and there, and even a smattering of very minor encoding artifacts, there’s a lot of grain for an encoder to digest here and with some rare exception the AVC video encode at 24.5 Mbps average handles it quite well, but all things considered this disc looks very, very good. I’ll let the screenshots do the rest of the talking for this one. Bravo, Twilight Time!

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as uncompressed .png at full resolution in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Audio for the Rapture is presented in English via a simple and effective DTS-HD MA 1.0 track that perfectly replicates the film’s original monophonic recording. The sound design for Rapture is as memorable as the imagery in my mind, with crescendos in sound effects – not music – building up to its most impacting moments. Georges Delerue’s rich, oddly romantic score sounds quite good throughout, given the limitations of the original mix, but the accompanying isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 score track – the disc’s sole supplement – is a revelation. If there’s a complaint to be made then its with Rapture‘s lack of a subtitle track, SDH or otherwise. Both Mysterious Island and Fright Night (review coming soon, I promise!) have subtitles, and I can only assume that none were provided by 20th Century Fox for this release.

Rapture is the sort of release that really drives home the importance of independent labels like Twilight Time, which are finally allowing some of the real surprises of the big studio libraries to see the light of day on home video. This Blu-ray is another quality package from the company, with a fine transfer, a great isolated score, and a superb set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo (some perspective on Rapture is really a must, and Kirgo does an admirable job providing it), and another easy endorsement from me.

in conclusion
Film: One of a kind  Video: Very Good +  Audio: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Georges Delerue score track
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case with booklet of liner notes.
Rapture is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

Year: 2010   Runtime: 107′   Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson   Music: Eric Serra   Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Cast: Louise Bourgoin, Jacky Nercessian, Mathieu Amalric,
Gilles Lelouche, Philippe Nahon, Jean-Paul Rouve

Journalist and adventurer Adele Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) is adventuring in Egypt. The young woman is attempting to steal the mummy of Patmosis, the personal physician of Ramses II. Adele’s not in it for money or fame, though. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Adele is trying to acquire Patmosis so that her friend, the elderly – and nutty – professor Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian) can revive the dead guy with his enormous mind powers. The newly alive Patmosis, or so Adele hopes, will then use the superior medical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians to cure her sister, who has been lying in a waking coma ever since a very unfortunate tennis/hatpin accident (for which Adele feels guilty) five years ago. Acquiring the mummy needs all of Adele’s (also quite enormous) powers of sarcasm and adventuring, but evading a nasty French government agent and gaining possession of the dead doctor is only the beginning of what the young writer will have to do to save her sister.

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Ogroff

a.k.a. (The) Mad Mutilator Year: 1983   Runtime: 89′
Director: N. G. Mount   Writers: N. G. Mount   Cinematography: Marc Georges   Music: Jean Richard
Cast: N.G. Mount, Robert Alaux, Francoise Deniel, Pierre Patin, Howard Vernon

A leather mask and wool cap wearing killer who might or might not respond to the name of Ogroff (the film’s director/writer/nearly-everything-else-er N.G. Mount) haunts a patch of woods in the French countryside, doing what masked killers do, namely killing people with his favourite axe, eating parts of their corpses raw (although he appreciates a good blood soup, too), and having sex with said axe in his bone-adorned shed. From time to time, Ogroff has more interesting things to do, like having a longish duel with a chainsaw-wielding gentleman or demolishing a very French car with his axe in real-time.

While Ogroff goes about his day(s) – time tends to be somewhat malleable in these woods – a female relative of one of his victims – let’s call her Girl – arrives to find out what happened to her sister/brother/little nephew. While she’s at it, she also decapitates a zombie with the help of her trusty car and a rope. When Girl and Ogroff meet, our hero (yep, that’s what he is, sorry) hauls her over his shoulder and drags her to his shed where the two soon proceed to have consensual sex. Afterwards, Girl starts with improving Ogroff’s home by burying various body parts and tidying up the shed.

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Sheitan

company: 120 Films
year: 2006
runtime: 88′
country: France
director: Kim Chapiron
cast: Vincent Cassel, Roxane Mesquida,
Olivier Bartelemy, Nico Le Phat Tan,
Leila Bekhti, Ladj Ly
writers: Kim Chapiron, Christian Chapiron
cinematography: Alex Lamarque
order this film from Amazon.com

I’m going to explain a bit more of the film’s subtext than I’d strictly like in the course of the write-up, so anyone planning to see this with fresh eyes shouldn’t read any further.

It’s the night before Christmas. After being thrown out of a club thanks to the douchey behaviour of their friend Bart (Olivier Bartelemy), Ladj (Ladj Ly), Thai (Nico Le Phat Tan), the barkeep Yasmine (Leila Bekhti) and vague acquaintance Eve (Roxane Mesquida) decide to drunk drive to Eve’s country home to spend some time there.

The folks’ place must be far from Paris, because the group only arrives some time the next morning. There’s no trace of Eve’s parents at her place, only Dad’s doll collection. The only people home are the family’s satyr-like groundskeeper Joseph (Vincent Cassel) and – unseen by the Parisians – his highly pregnant wife Marie (Georgette Crochon). Marie mostly seems to spend her time making a doll out of spare parts and hiding, but the city folk are too busy with other things to notice.

Ladj would really like to get into Yasmine’s pants, merrily ignoring the fact that he has a girlfriend at home, while both the obviously douchy Bart, and the more subtly douchy Thai both feel very attracted to Eve, who for her part isn’t exactly discouraging anyone (although I don’t think these guys would notice if she were). Joseph for his part seems strangely interested in Barth, but for what reason won’t become clear until much later in the movie.

Suffice it to say that these reasonably friendly country people have some rather strange hobbies, besides throwing smiling racist insults around. Everything Joseph and the country youth do has an undertone of violence and weird menace that people a bit more sensitive and sensible than our “heroes” would find creepy, if not outright disturbing. Of course, the violent undercurrent will come to the surface in the end, if in a different way than you would expect.


Kim Chapiron’s Sheitan really is something different than you’d think on first (or even second) sight.

It all starts out as a French variation of the backwoods slasher, promising a gore explosion in the manner of much of the French horror renaissance for its final thirty minutes.

But the longer the film is running, the clearer it gets that this is not the kind of film it initially pretends to be. In spirit, it is much closer to the great weird European films of the fantastic made in the Seventies than its contemporaries, willing to give up on the notion of plot or characters nearly completely to better be able to drag its viewers into the realms of utter strangeness and dry, wrong-feeling humour.

Instead of the expected revue of kills, the film plays out as a series of increasingly disquieting, often erotically charged set pieces bound to confuse, annoy, amuse and confound anyone with their grotesquerie. While it is obvious to the film’s audience (the characters are rather dense, I’m afraid) that something very unpleasant is bound to happen rather sooner than later, the film virtually wallows in not explaining itself too early. But, unlike in some of my other very favorite weird ass European films, everything happening does in fact happen for a reason. You see, it is important that Sheitan takes place at Christmas, because the child Marie is going to give birth to is the Anti-Christ, or at least that is what the country family thinks – there is nothing overtly supernatural going on. Much of what happens during the course of the movie happens as a twisted mirror of Christian tradition, sometimes more subtle and sometimes less (Mary and Joseph, anyone?).

Still, as I said, the film never does actually say this outright, and instead treats its high concept a bit detached and with a feeling of sardonic humour, like a joke it doesn’t need you to get to find funny.


I’m very fond of the way Chapiron directs the film. It is steady, technically adept, but doesn’t try to out-weird itself like a lot of modern horror films going for weird are wont to, very often to their detriment. This does not mean that Chapiron just points and shoots. Rather, he is building the mood of intense strangeness required for his film in more subtle ways and does not seem to need or want to put too much emphasis on his own abilities.

“Subtle” isn’t a word I’d use for Vincent Cassel’s performance here. From a certain perspective, he’s chewing the scenery outrageously, but still manages to give this outwardly blustering performance a much more disturbing undercurrent, as if his outer madness is hiding something much worse (which it in fact does). Roxane Mesquida’s performance as Eve is nearly as intense as Cassel’s, but not as aggressively over the top. She projects a quiet eroticism that also hints at something different beyond or below it.

Our theoretical heroes are just as well played, but the characters the actors are left with don’t have much depth to them. They’re supposed to be a bit dense, a bit too aggressive, and utterly unlikeable, and they manage that perfectly. Of course, this isn’t a character study, but a trip into the land of the weird, so I’m not complaining.

There isn’t much to complain about in Sheitan anyway. Sure, it doesn’t have a plot, but watching something this clearly in the tradition of 70s Eurohorror and demanding “plot” instead of a  moody trip into a strange place in someone’s head is just wrong-headed, like complaining that the moon isn’t made of green cheese.

If you let it, Sheitan can beautifully mess with your head, and make your mind a more interesting place for its ninety minute running time (and possibly afterwards). I couldn’t wish for more.



order this film from Amazon.com

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

OSS 117 se Dechaine

company: CICC
year: 1963
runtime: 99′
country: France
director: Andre Hunebelle
cast: Kerwin Matthews, Nadia Sanders,
Henri-Jacques Huet

The American spy Roos (Jacques Harden) is killed while on a diving expedition set to find the place where the Russians are hiding their swanky new experimental atom submarine detector. This gadget would make US atom subs nearly useless, leading to dire danger for world peace because the Americans could incinerate the world’s population only ten times over instead of twenty or something.

Renotte (Henry-Jacques Huet), the diving instructor Roos was working with (no, I don’t know why he used random civilians in his work), convinces the French police that his charge’s death was an accident, but the OSS is of a different opinion in the matter and sends its best man to finish the job Roos couldn’t.

Said best man has been cursed with the dubious name of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Kerwin Mathews), and quickly gets to work, mostly by making himself a pest to Renotte and trying to talk himself into Renotte’s girlfriend’s Brigitta’s (Nadia Sanders) panties.

Fortunately for the viewer, a handful of Russian agents are making it their mission to complicate matters for everyone involved. It might even be possible that Brigitta is one of them too, without even the shady Renotte’s knowledge.

Of course, what kind of secret movie agent would Hubert be if he wasn’t able to kiss a Russian spy over to his side.

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This, some helpful French spies, and a handily placed self-destruct button should be enough to make the world a safe place by keeping the potential number of victims in a war as high as possible.

Before Ian Fleming created his much loved super spy James Bond, French writer Jean Bruce had already penned an astonishing amount of spy thrillers about OSS 117, an American agent from New Orleans whose French roots were probably helpful when trying to sell him as a hero in France. As far as I (ignorant of French as I am) understand it, they must have been quite pulpy. There had already been a single attempt to adapt the series for the cinema in the 50s, but its lack of sequels doesn’t exactly speak to its success.

Of course, in 1962 everything changed for the spy film with the appearance of the first Bond movie, showing everyone with an interest in money a new, unexplored genre to exploit.

It didn’t take us Europeans long to jump on the spy bandwagon, and what better way to keep away from pesky law suits about intellectual property was there than to try and start another series of OSS 117 films?

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OSS 117 Se Dechaine is the first of these new, improved OSS 117 outings. As these things go, the film is more a proto Eurospy effort with a heavy thriller influence than already a full grown example of the Eurospy genre. It has some of the hallmarks of later films, like the theoretically smart yet rather bland hero who doesn’t really do much besides womanizing and punching people gallantly in the face, rampant sexism that should be much too ridiculous to offend anyone, and a happy disregard for the realities of violence and death I always find charming.

What the movie misses is the full-grown insanity of later efforts in the sub-genre – there are no evil lairs of note (I don’t think a normal mansion and a boring cave count), the villains are just relatively normal people, and their plans make a certain amount of sense, at least as long as you are able to run with the sort of logic the Cold War thrived on. Don’t get me wrong, the plot is still silly enough to drive any arbiter of good taste to fits and the last half hour of the film or so even takes some good steps on the road to complete loss of reality, it’s just that the film still seems to have illusions about being a film about dramatized espionage instead of a conglomerate of crazy ideas and scantily clad women.

Another expected element the film is lacking completely is the exoticism many a later Eurospy film used to cover up its lack of a budget and provide the film team with a nice vacation, as well as the viewer with some attractive filler material. Here, there’s only black and white Corsica and Nice to look at, and not too many of the touristy parts of them for that matter.

It all feels a little low-key for what I have learned to expect from the genre. However, director Andre Hunebelle (who’d helm two further OSS 117 adventures and had before made quite a few swashbuckling adventure movies) is an obvious professional and makes the most out of what he has to work with. The action sequences aren’t exactly spectacular or realized on the level of someone like Enzo Castellari, but are entertaining enough, the acting is fairly solid, and the soundtrack nicely swinging, very French jazz.

The whole film is also well photographed and should have enough of interest in it to keep people watching who have no historical interest in early Eurospy films.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?