I'd like you to take a good look at the poster for Devil Story. A good, long look. It's a remarkable poster. It seems to have impressed Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs — it's reprinted twice in their book on European sex and horror films, "Immoral Tales": once on the cover and once in the color plates. This is all the more remarkable in that the movie itself is only mentioned once in the book — inaccurately — in a footnote.
In the background, you'll catch a glimpse of a ghost ship. In front of that is a mysterious mansion, and a graveyard. Then, in front of the graveyard, you can see the figure of a man bursting into flames. At the opposite side of the poster, in front of an enormous explosion, there's a mummy chasing a scantily-clad blonde woman. In the center, dominating the entire composition, is what looks like a withered, drooling Nazi zombie clutching a rifle. If I were to tell you that this pretty much sums up the content of Devil Story, you could be forgiven for thinking this must be one of the greatest movies ever made.
Actually, it is. But not in any conventional sense, or in any way I might hope to explain to you reasonably and rationally.
There's this little matter of execution that prevents Devil Story from realizing the promise of that staggeringly potent poster. If "execution" makes you think of some guilty wretch being dragged out and shot at dawn, then you've got a pretty good idea of what's in store for your brain if you should ever encounter Devil Story (and you will! Read on...).
Now, it's common knowledge among Bad Movie buffs that incompetence can result in an accidental masterpiece — a movie that shouldn't work at all, yet somehow manages to reach a surprisingly wide audience. Edward D. Wood's movies, in particular Plan 9 from Outer Space, are usually held up as examples of this phenomenon of the "anti-classic". But it's a little rarer that we find a movie so inept that it kicks itself squarely in the balls, even to the point of calling the validity of its entire genre into question. Such a movie is Devil Story.
In fact, if I didn't know better, I would swear that a film as broadly and consistently awful as this one had to have been made intentionally. Truly terrible movies are often dull, and this one is suspiciously fun to watch. I'd have guessed that the man responsible for the movie — writer/director Bernard Launois — was actually a disgruntled maker of Art Films... somebody at the far end of yesterday's avant garde, like Guy Debord (Hurlements en faveur de Sade) or Thierry Zéno (Vase des noces), who'd found himself so disgusted by the state of French commercial cinema in the mid-1980's that he felt he had to make his own film as a comment. Not as a parody — parody implies a grudging respect or even affection for its target; or at very least the acknowledgement that its subject is worthy of notice, and therefore ridicule. No. This had to be an all-out attack, a diatribe against French "horror" in general and Jean Rollin in particular.
But as it happens, Launois the Frustrated Artist was a figment of my imagination. In realit, Launois was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill exploitation film-maker. He'd confined himself to generic comedies through his brief career as a director (for example: Release the Bitches! and Don't Touch my Bagpipe), and his choice to make a horror film seems to have been motivated by neither fondness nor antipathy for the genre. French cinema had fallen on hard times in the mid-80's, and Launois (who was also a theater-owner) seems to have thought a locally-shot horror cheapie would help earn him a few francs before the regional film market went bust forever.
He was absolutely the wrong man for the job. Apparently he thought (as so many French critics thought) that what Jean Rollin did was easy: that he had no need of a story, or a convincing screenplay. All he needed to do was dream up some sort of illogical nightmare scenario, throw in a few monsters and scantily-clad women, et voilà! He'd create something gullible horror fans would applaud for its surreal beauty and its macabre poetry. But (setting aside the fact that Rollin was pretty much loathed by French moviegoers of the time) Launois had nothing of Rollin's desperate sincerity. He lacked that inner vision that drove Rollin to make tremendous sacrifices for his films, in the face of public ridicule. Thus Launois went off and made a movie beside which Rollin's Zombie Lake is Proust.
The movie starts without any sort of preamble: we find a horribly disfigured man tearing up a campground, and murdering another man with a knife. The killer is identified in the opening credits as The Monster, and is played by Launois's son Pascal under the pseudonym "Pascal Simon". He looks like somebody took a blowtorch to the Muppet version of Peter Boyle. For reasons that are never explained, he's also wearing a Nazi uniform, though the movie takes place in contemporary 1985 France (here I imagined Launois the Frustrated Artist reminding us of the existence of Zombie Lake). The Monster's appearance and his uniform have lead some critics to categorize Devil Story as a Nazi Zombie movie, though it becomes apparent later in the film that the Monster, despite his remarkable powers of recovery, is not quite dead.
The Monster's second victim is a young girl carrying firewood through the forest. This was the moment I first began to think that Launois was being cynical. You see, the girl is skipping — yes, skipping — through the woods; tra-la. The girl is killed using that hoary old "special effect" in which she's attacked with her back to the camera; she then swings around to reveal bloody make-up that had already been applied.
The following scene strengthened my conviction that Launois the Frustrated Artist was fucking with us: the Monster's next victims are played by Launois himself and his wife. The couple runs out of gas not far from the bloody campsite, and the Man grabs a gas can and goes off to find a service station. He fails to see the Monster crouching behind a roadside monument. When the Monster leaps out, the Man stares at him in shock... and then asks him — asks the grunting, screaming, hideously deformed Nazi-uniform-clad Monster — if he happens to know where he could find some gas.
You know what happens next: the Monster stabs the Man, and the camera zooms in for a painfully long look at an unconvincing blood pump. Not even Launois himself can keep still that long. Meanwhile, the Monster goes after Mrs. Launois and shoots her in the face with a rifle (using the same turn-around reveal as the Monster's other female victim).
By this point in the movie, I was convinced the rest of the (cough) story was going to consist of the Monster killing more random passers-by for the next sixty minutes. I would have been perfectly happy with that. Instead, this whole introduction turns out to have been a big digression. When Launois had finished his first edit, he realized he'd come up with less than an hour's worth of footage. So he put his son back in the Peter Boyle mask, called up a few friends to play random victims, and shot this whole new opening sequence. What follows is the main body of the film more or less as it was originally planned.
We go from the murder of the stranded motorists to yet another couple in a car. This pair is much younger than the previous victims; instead of running out of gas, their car develops a strange invisible puncture. While the man works on the car (which for some reason has Florida license plates), the young woman (Véronique Renaud) — let's call her The Girl; that seems appropriate — is summoned out into a rocky field by a black cat. Seriously: "summoned" is the only word for it. The cat exercises some strange psychic power: an echoey heartbeat sound takes over the soundtrack, and Girl sleepwalks out into the field...
(It's worth pointing out that this black cat is probably the best actor in the entire cast. He certainly has the best lines: he's a very talkative cat. Sure, he needs to be tossed into the air to simulate the "attack". Sure, after we see him flying through the air, we never see him land... in fact, he never even enters the frame with the Girl. But that's the editor's fault, not his. In most other respects his performance really stands out. In fact, he manages to sneak in his own critique of the film and his role in it: the last time we see him, it's pretty clear to anybody familiar with cats and their behavior that he's getting ready to poop.)
The Girl comes out of her stupor just before the cat "attacks". Seeing her hands clawed to ribbons by the cat (sic), she panics and flees back to her husband, who tries unsuccessfully to comfort her. It takes the Girl a very long time to realize her hands are uninjured...
The young man, realizing their trip is ruined, brings his traumatized wife to a nearby guest house. I'm using the word "nearby" guardedly: the young man assures the Girl that the village is close by, but by the time they arrive, it's pitch dark. I'm also using the term "guest house" with reservations — pardon the expression — because the "guest house" is actually the enormous gothic Palais Bénédictine, one of the principal attractions of Fécamp, Normandy (where the movie was shot). To demonstrate exactly how big and forbidding this "guest house" really is, the soundtrack gives us (what else?) Bach's Toccata in d-minor, played very loud. The gates of the property swing open on their own as the car approaches — again, for no discernable reason... that's just what spooky castle gates do when Bach organ music plays on the soundtrack.
(Here, again, I imagined Launois the Frustrated Artist lashing out against Jean Rollin. Could this be any clearer a reference to Rollin's Les Démoniaques , which concerned a supernatural revenge against a band of wreckers?)
The old woman continues: three descendants of the Cinq Frères are still alive in the village, though they live under a terrible curse. There's an old hag, thought to be a witch, and her two children: a girl that nobody has ever seen (!), and a boy, who is horribly deformed and possibly an idiot.
Guess who that is?
(The Girl and her husband are not the only audience for this tale. Out in front of the gate of the [cough] guest house paces a black horse. Like the black cat, this animal seems to represent some sinister, diabolical force... leading us to wonder: who, exactly, is the Devil in Devil Story? The cat? The horse? The Monster?)
Naturally, the Girl has a little difficulty sleeping that night. Worse, the Devil Horse keeps pacing and whinnying just outside. The Girl gets up to investigate (in her negligée, of course), but as she's going to the main hallway to peer outside she is suddenly pushed aside by the old man, carrying that familiar-looking shotgun. "I'll kill that devil beast!" he cries, as he runs out into the night, straight past the horse and out into the middle of nowhere.
The Girl — still in her negligée — decides to go out after him. BOO! says the Devil Horse. EEK! says the Girl. Rather sensibly, all things considered, the Girl decides to try to get in the car and get the hell out of there. True, she's leaving her husband behind, but husbands never amount to much in these kinds of movies anyway. Unfortunately, she finds the teleporting Devil Horse waiting for her in the road, and this (for reasons that are never made clear) makes her abandon her vehicle and go stumbling through the woods.
Eventually, she runs into the Monster and his evil mother. It turns out the Girl is a dead ringer for the Daughter Nobody Has Ever Seen — dead is the operative word here, since the Daughter (Véronique Renaud again, in an absolutely terrible wig) has recently kicked the bucket, and the grisly pair are busy lowering her coffin into a random crypt in the local cemetery.
At the same time, oddly enough, the Devil Horse also seems to be chasing the old man around the countryside. For most of the rest of the movie, we see the horse running circles around the French Elmer Fudd. At first, he tries to club the horse with the stock of his loaded shotgun... fortunately for the old man, the horse never gets close enough for him to connect. When this strategy fails, the old man starts whirling in circles, firing the shotgun completely at random, using an inexhaustible supply of shells. I hate to think how many cameramen they perforated with buckshot filming these scenes.
Revealing that the sarcophagus is only a lid. There's no actual back to it at all. How is it even swinging open, if its hinges aren't attached to anything? What could this possibly be except Launois the Frustrated Artist, jumping up and down and cackling over the limitations of low-budget cinema?
Back at the cemetery, the Girl's premature burial isn't exactly going smoothly. The Monster is disturbed enough by the presence of the Devil Horse that he decides to go pick a fist-fight with it. Yes, you read that right: a fist-fight with a wild horse. Now, behind-the-scenes "making-of" footage for Devil Story shows that the horse was very well-trained and well-behaved. Nevertheless, this is not the sort of scene that's attempted by any but the most confident or the most foolhardy film-makers... especially when the director's own son is the stunt man under the horse's hooves. To be fair to Launois, once you get past the unbelieveable stupidity of the idea, the fight is actually shot pretty well. It goes pretty much as you'd expect, though: the Devil Horse kicks the living shit out of the Monster, who then spends and entire minute of screen time vomiting blood in close-up ("You want gratuitous gore?" shouts Launois the Frustrated Artist, as the uncomfortable scene goes on, and on, and on, and on; "I've got your gratuitous gore!").
But a few broken ribs, punctured lungs and a ruptured spleen have never been enough to keep a good Monster down. He keeps trying to punch out the Devil Horse, until the beast decides enough is enough and gives him a swift kick in the head. At this point a large part of the Monster's cranium is loose, and dangling by a flap of skin... we're given another painfully long close-up as he tries and fails to put his head back together again. Eventually, he collapses with such force that he manages to go straight through the cemetery wall, pinning his mother under the debris.
While the Girl cowers behind a tombstone, the Mummy shuffles over to the crypt. In another reasonably well-managed shot, he makes a commanding gesture over the grave... and the dead Daughter rises slowly from the opening. Why? Well... everybody knows Egyptian revenants are always looking for their lost loves, in some form or other, at least since a Conan Doyle story from 1890. I guess in this case we have to assume the Mummy's lost love is a dead girl in a provincial French cemetery, who just happens to be the lookalike of a live Girl in the same cemetery that very night. It makes as much sense as anything else we've seen so far.
I'm afraid that I'm making this all sound much more coherent than it really is. I've got little choice. This is one of those movies that forces you to hallucinate some sort of structure to it, if you don't want it to drive you insane. What I'm unable to convey with mere words, though, is the way this nonsenical story is filmed. In general (except for the slipshod, hastily-shot opening) Launois is enough of a professional to know how to set up a scene so that it's reasonably insteresting to look at. This alone places him in a whole different category from other legendary Bad Horror Movie directors like Ed Wood, or Coleman Francis, or Jerry Warren. But Launois's technical skill works against him: every mistake... every mis-step... every cut corner, botched edit, wretched performance and unintentionally-hilarious line... is captured with merciless clarity. Launois has made that rarity, a watchable Bad Movie... a movie whose awfulness the audience has no reason to look away from.
And yet, there are moments in Devil Story that make a surprising amount of sense. These are some of the funniest bits in the movie, because they're invariably lousy moments for a horror movie to recover its sanity.
For instance, there's a scene where the Monster attempts to attack the Girl as she sits trying to start her car. In the time-honored tradition of Monsters, he decides not to drag her out through the open driver's-side door, but rather to jump at her over the hood. The Girl reacts by throwing the car into gear and squashing him against a lamp-post (which leads to another long blood-vomiting sequence). Actually, the smashing-into-the-lamp-post bit is completely mishandled, both in shooting and editing; it's very clear that she's missed the lamp-post, making the Monster's sudden injury inexplicable. Here's the great thing about the sequence, though: when the Monster begins coughing up blood all over the windshield, the Girl does something simple and sensible that I've never seen a horror movie heroine do before: she turns on the windshield wipers.
Simple. Sensible. And ridiculous.
But that's not all — as the Monster lies on the ground, writhing in agony, the Girl does something else that horror heroines rarely do: she runs up to him with her vehicle's gas can and douses him with fuel. Then she retreats to a safe distance and lights the Monster on fire.
So many Final Girls of the 80's threw away their weapons before the job was done. Not this Girl: here is Launois the Frustrated Artist showing us how a terrified, brutalized young woman makes damned sure the Monster doesn't sit up again. Of course, there's a reason the heroine doesn't do this more often: it's an absolutely horrifying thing for her to do... even though I'll admit it's oddly satisfying, in a disturbed sort of way. But then, having violated the rules of Final Girl decorum, Launois the Frustrated Artist has another bitter twist in store for us: as the Girl drives away to freedom, she runs out of gas. There's even a flashback to the gas-pouring incident to rub the irony in our faces.
At least the Girl no longer has the Monster to deal with. But as she contemplates the empty trunk of her car, she looks up... and sees the Mummy marching toward her.
And here we have another detail worth mentioning: twice — here, and then further toward the end of the movie — we're given long, slow pans that reveal the Mummy lurching across the countryside. Both times, the effect is suitably dramatic. Bur both times, after the camera has centered on the Mummy and his undead bride, it keeps on moving, wa-a-a-ay past its target, until the Mummy has completely disappeared from the frame. The first time, the pan goes from left to right; the second time, the camera pans up, soaring past the grisly couple and all the way up into the sky. It looks like a really obvious mistake. Here's the thing, though: there is a reason these shots have been done this way. The reason becomes clear at the climax of the movie, when panning away from the Mummy reveals something central to the plot. The shots are still unbelieveably stupid-looking, but it's not random stupidity at work: it's structural stupidity. This is Load-Bearing Stupid.
All this nonsense is brought to a close with an epilogue that shouldn't work at all — a non-ending ending; the sort of coda that would leave Umberto (Nightmare City) Lenzi shaking with rage and demading his money back. Yet in this instance, with this particular film, it fits. It helps explain the original French title of the movie: Il était une fois le diable, or "Once upon a time, there was the Devil", suggesting it's one of Charles Perrault's contes — written posthumously in Hell — being told and retold, with slight variations, as a sinister bedtime story for particularly wicked children. It also finally tells us who the Devil is in "Devil Story": obviously, it's Bernard Launois.
I'd like to give a special mention to the one aspect of Devil Story that I find most entertaining. No, I don't mean Véronique Renaud in a baby-doll nighty — not that Launois doesn't manage some breathtaking shots that show us all too clearly why he hired her...
What I really mean is the performance of Pascal Simon as the Monster and the Mummy. Simon has the whole Bad Movie Monster schtick down to an science. He throws himself into the performance with all his heart. Even when he trips over the props, he recovers and makes it part of the act. Simon is no Lon Chaney, Sr. — come to think of it, he's no Lon Chaney, Jr., either — but he does manage to provide some microscopic nuances between the pre-credits rampage Monster, the more sedate, slightly idiotic graveyard Monster, and the post-injury, brain-damaged Monster.
In fact, the tiny nuances in Simon's performances began to trouble me after a while. The Monster seems much different in the main body of the film — more like the deformed village idiot the old man assumes him to be. If we hadn't seen him go on his killing spree at the beginning of the film (which was added later to pad out the running time), we'd have come away with a much different idea of his character — in spite of the Nazi jacket. If the killings hadn't been tacked on to the opening, he wouldn't have ended up hurting anybody at all, and the Girl's decision to burn him alive might have been even more horrifying.
As for the Mummy: sure, he does end up killing somebody who gets in his way. But that's a character we were longing to see torn limb from limb anyway. Really, the Mummy's not much of a menace. I have to wonder why the Girl suddenly takes it upon herself to do everything she can to stop him bringing his zombie girlfriend back to his sarcophagus. We don't really know what the Mummy's plans are; but honestly, guys: if you were sealed up in a coffin for six thousand years, what would you want to do when you got out? Perhaps that's what the Girl is worried about. Maybe she's afraid they're going to get serious and decide to raise an undead family ("Cleopatra Has Two Mummies").
Oh, but now I'm wandering off topic. If you're interested in seeing exactly how terrible a movie can be while still being fun to watch, you owe it to yourself to see Devil Story. The ideal way to see it is on the French special edition DVD, produced by Nanarland.com, which as far as I'm concerned puts every other so-called "special" edition DVD to shame: the picture's been cleaned up remarkably; the soundtrack (which is a grade-Z marvel in itself) sounds like it was recorded yesterday; and the special features range from a making-of documentary, to old publicity spots for the initial release of the film, to a fake documentary about the "Devil Story Phenomenon", to (my favorite) an extra audio track, synced to the feature, that reproduces the audience reaction during a live showing of the film.
But the Region 2 disc is hard to find outside of France. So if you want to experience this one-of-a-kind movie for yourself, you can always watch the low-quality, English-dubbed, Greek-subtitled VHS rip currently (as of February 2015) available on YouTube. It's a mere 72 minutes, but it's likely to change your perspective on what constitutes a Truly Bad Movie for the rest of your life.
You can thank me later.