Devil Story (1985)
Directed by Bernard Launois
A little known French horror film that the only extant English version of is a badly scanned copy on youtube with subtitles in Greek. Why am I watching this?
Well for starters because Braineater drew my attention to it but mostly because, well, look at that poster.
Zombies in SS uniforms, ghost ships, a Mummy (!) a man on fire…what on earth is this thing about?
Having seen it, I am still asking myself that question.
So Devil Story starts with some kind of mutant in an SS uniform (unexplained element number 1) running around the French countryside killing people and very quickly a few things about Devil Story become obvious.
- This film was shot for no money whatsoever. The biggest clue to this being the blood ‘effects’ achieved by squeezing a hand pump full of red water onto an actor.
- Boring things like motivations, narrative, dialogue and sense will not be troubling the audience today.
- The cinematographer doesn’t actually know how to use a camera. One of the great things about bad movies is the way they, by making mistakes, reveal all the talent in good movies you’d never notice. Devil Story features such joys as a guy picking the camera up, stand and all, and walking backwards away from the subject of the shot complete with shaking and the noise of the camera operator grunting. Plus one of the most bafflingly terrible cinematography decisions ever, but I’ll get to that later.
- At some point somebody who did know what they were doing adjusted the exposure of the cameras. This allowed the cameras to film at night pretty effectively for such a low budget film. However, they neglected to adjust the exposure again for the scenes shot during the day. As such every scene shot during the day is painfully washed out to the point of being nearly invisible. It’s a white screen with coloured blurs moving on it.
- This film was scored by somebody who bought a Casio 2 days ago and now thinks they’re Goblin.
Like, 2 minutes into this stinker you know you have stumbled upon bad movie gold.
So our mutant murders some campers for oooh, a good 15 minutes at least. We have no idea who these people are, their names, why the mutant is killing them, etc. It’s just murder, cut to blood, murder, cut to blood in an endless repetition. Then the mutant pounces upon a couple with a flat tire. Then we cut to an entirely different couple with car troubles whom our mutant does not trouble. Instead, as the man (no name is given as far as I could tell) tries to fix the car our heroine (Veronique Renaud)* wanders off into a quarry to be menaced by a cat (unexplained element number 2).
Just, an ordinary cat, whose evilness is generated by shooting it from a low angle, playing scary music and having our heroine stare at it with a frightened expression.
Then it jumps on her, or rather, is thrown on her from off screen by a grip. Poor kitty.
So after ooh, approximately 4 days of looking at the adorable evil cat our couple drives to a nearby inn run by exposition woman and some old French guy who keeps an enormous hunting knife in his sock and loads and unloads a shotgun for fun. And by nearby inn I mean the Palais Bénédictine in Normandy a structure so gothic and intimidating it is accompanied by Tocata in Fugue in D Minor when we first see it. Don’t know the music? Here, let me jog your memory.
Yup, it’s that music. Aka the most stereotypically ‘scary’ noise imaginable.
Anyway, exposition couple start to regale boring couple with the story of the local legend.
Some time in the past lived a family of wreckers. Wreckers are people who would light fires to lure ships onto rocks to shipwreck them, then loot whatever washed ashore. One night the family lured the wrong ship ashore though as they’ve targeted a clipper coming from Cairo carrying all sorts of Egyptian artefacts.
The ship does wreck, but then the cliffs themselves come alive, eating the family and the ship. The only one spared was the youngest sister who grew up to become a powerful witch and now lives alone with her son nearby, and that son is the mutant we saw earlier. Oh and a daughter whom nobody has ever seen.
Having been told this tale, boring couple decides to go to sleep. The husband promptly disappears from the film entirely but the wife is awoken by the sound of an evil horse (unexplained element number 3). How do we know its evil? It’s black and runs up and down in front of the inn repeatedly. And boy, do I mean repeatedly. Shots of that horse running or rearing comprise, what must be 50% of this film’s running time?
Having been startled by this horse our heroine decides, for some reason, to drive away from the creepy inn whilst wearing her nightie. I’m not sure what her thought process was here since the horse seems fairly incapable or getting past the gates, through the doors, up the stairs and to her bedroom. I guess bitches be crazy? (unexplained element 4?)
Of course, this being a horror film, her car won’t start so she takes the eminently sensible option of running off into the woods!
French survivalist dude also decides he’s had just about enough of this evil horse and goes out to kill it. The horse runs away into a field where the Frenchman chases him and begins shooting at him. This effect achieved by watching the man spin round firing wildly intercut with shots of the horse rearing. This footage of the guy spinning and shooting makes up the other 50% of this film’s running time. Yes I know that adds up to 100% and yet I’m describing other scenes. It doesn’t make sense does it!
Welcome to my nightmare!
So whilst the epic battle of man versus horse continues the scene shifts to the mutant and the witch burying the young girl. Said young girl is also played by Veronique Renaud so when she shows up in their graveyard the old woman and the mutant are somewhat surprised and, I think, assume that she’s the daughter come back to life and that they need to bury her again. The mutant gets distracted from his burying duties by the evil horse then suddenly the evil horse is at a cliff and, in a scene I think is stolen from another film entirely, the cliff splits apart and the ghostly clipper from Cairo emerges from the cliff in the form of a toy boat. (unexplained…ah fuck it.)
We scarcely have a chance to process this development when we cut to a massive sarcophagus standing on the beach. The lid swings open to reveal, yes a mummy. Ancient Egypt, when will you leave us alone!!
It also reveals that the sarcophagus isn’t, it’s just a lid, without a back. So it was less the mummy emerging from his sarcophagus than it was the mummy standing behind a door waiting for the camera to look at him so he can make a dramatic entrance.
Back to the mutant, the girl and the devil horse. The mutant is prevented from burying the girl by the horse and so begins a fight between SS Nazi Mutant and Demonic Horse (not quite up to the standards of zombie vs shark but what is). This fight goes about as well for the mutant as can be expected and after a headache inducing fight scene the girl suddenly has a chance to escape.
Then the mummy shows up.
Fortunately he seems more interested in raising the daughter from her grave than the living Veronique. So she hides behind a gravestone whilst the mummy commands the dead to live. However, when she sees her lookalike she lets out a startled cry that alerts the mummy to her presence.
Now, I don’t know why the mummy decides to try and kill her at this point, let’s just chalk it up to the inscrutable evil of Ancient Egypt. But he does and our heroine (*snort , snicker*) fights him off by clawing his face off. This reveals a rotten face that vomits a clear white liquid for oooh 4 hours? What’s that, this film’s only 72 minutes long? Well I can’t explain it folks but suffice to say this badly realised gore effect lasts way, way, waaaay too long.
The girl runs away, the mutant gets up and chases her and the mummy decides to wander away with his new zombie girlfriend into a sequel with infinitely more promise than this pile of rubbish.
Then comes what may be the worst shot I’ve ever seen.
We’re back to daytime by this point so everything has been turned back into a white featureless void with shapes that might conceivably be trees. The camera is pointed at these trees and it begins to pan left,
And keeps panning
And keeps panning
And keeps panning as the road comes into view
Then it keeps panning
And keeps panning
And keeps panning
And keeps panning
If for nothing else watch Devil Story for this shot. In fact, helpfully, the whole thing is available on youtube so you have no excuse. This shot is the most baffling choice in a film consisting entirely of baffling choices. I can kind of see why the first part of the shot works. Panning across the landscape to suddenly reveal something is a time honoured trick and a good way to pair the shock of the jump scare with the tension created by anticipation. Basically if you pan across a featureless landscape in a horror film the audience knows something bad is going to happen but they don’t know when, and that is a great way to scare them.
But there is absolutely no goddamn reason in the entire world why you would keep panning after the reveal. It achieves precisely fuck all effectiveness. It’s so inherently wrong that it’s straight up comedy gold.
So, morning now and our heroine still has to get away. She makes it back to her car pursued by the mutant and this time it starts. He does the standard splay himself on the windscreen and roar menacingly thing and she, in what is to give this film some credit quite a well shot sequence, smashes him into a lamp post. The mutant begins coughing blood over her windscreen and she does something I have never seen a final girl do before, she turns the windscreen wipers on!
Then she reverses away leaving the pretty badly mauled mutant lying collapsed on the ground.
Now, most final girls at this point would just drive away but Veronique Renaud has had one terrible fucking night and is having none of that shit. She gets a canister of petrol from her car and douses the mutant in it whilst he lies bloody and bleeding, then, retreats to a safe distance and lights him on fire!
It’s a strategy with pros and cons. Pro, that mutant is definitely dead now. Con, as she drives away (completely ignoring her disappearing husband) her car runs out of petrol. Oh irony, thy name is Devil Story. This wouldn’t be so bad except as Veronique scans the horizon she sees, lurching towards her the mummy again.
Veronique waking up the next morning after her nightmare and driving off with her husband as the mutant looks on.
Oh hell no.
An it was all a dream ending? Yup, they went there. The most hackneyed, cliché and downright terrible way you could possibly think of to end a horror film and Devil Story does it. They even have the goddamn cheek to add a ‘but was it?’ coda. If nothing else you have to admire the sheer ballsiness of the filmmakers here. Actually scratch that if, you should admire nothing else.
This summary makes Devil Story sound 1000x more coherent than the experience of watching it is. Basically most of this film is shots of a horse rearing and a Frenchman spinning in circles with a shotgun intercut with insanity. Nobody has any names, characters do things for no adequately explained reason and characters move from location to location without any sense of transition. And yet, it gives itself an out with the stupid “it was all a dream” ending. Of course it’s incoherent and weird. Of course people do things for no reason. Of course a Frenchman can have an infinite supply of shotgun shells it’s all a dream!
That doesn’t make it good though. You can do dreamlike horror but it is, if anything, harder to do than horror where the subject matter is explicitly real in the text. The makers of Devil Story are not up to the task nor are they up to the task of, really anything to do with making a film. Rarely have I seen anything quite so incompetent and if it weren’t for one fairly major problem I’d be recommending this as a forgotten bad movie classic.
That problem? It’s kind of boring. Despite the insanity too much of the running time is repetitious and tedious. It’s short enough and weird enough that I would recommend it but only for the dedicated bad movie buff.
*Imdb doesn’t have the character’s name and damned if I picked it up whilst watching this turd. That’s a sign of a quality movie right there folks.