Monday, May 23, 2022

"Murderers Who Killed and Plundered" - Devil Story (1986) - Film #230

If the only contribution the French ever made to world cinema was Nightmare Weekend (1986), their reputation would be sealed as filmmakers of the highest order. But there are more French films worthy of discussion here on Senseless Cinema, and one of the finest is the minimalist monster rally Devil Story, also from 1986.

Reviewer fredericmignard writes insultingly, "It's not very far from Jean Rollin, it is much worse actually (and that was hard to be!)" Reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "Devil Story suffers from poor direction, choppy editing, amateurish make-up effects and lousy acting, but the worst thing about it is the soundtrack, with all sound effects at maximum volume and repeated incessantly." And reviewer trashgang writes, "Some parts are too long, some parts are gory, some parts are childish."

Read on for the truth about the French masterpiece Devil Story...

The camera pans across a French forest until it reaches a blue tent. Suddenly, a man-monster with an oversized head wearing a Nazi uniform and brandishing a knife leaps out of the tent, leaving the body of a young man behind. The camera lingers on the man’s chest injury, which irregularly spurts blood.

A young woman skips through the woods, carrying an armful of firewood. She too is killed by the man-monster, and she too is wounded such that blood spurts irregularly from her body. Then the man-monster drags her into a cave. This allows the man-monster to return to the young man’s body and toss it into a well.

The next day, an old profanity-spewing couple runs out of gas on the highway. Unfortunately for them, they have broken down right next to the monster, though the the old man is refreshingly undaunted by the creature’s grotesque appearance. “Is there a gas station around here where I can get some gas?” he asks politely, if a bit redundantly.

The creature, presumably enraged by the query, stabs the old man in the stomach, then picks up a rifle and walks off as the camera pointedly tilts upward toward an iron cross on top of a stone monolith. Then the creature shoots the elderly man’s wife, which results in blood splatters on her face and the old woman holding what looks to be an uncomfortable pose leaning against the car, dead.

The film continues to document the man-monster's murderous shenanigans as another motorist couple, this one much younger, is the victim of a tire blowout on a French highway. (None of the film's characters are ever identified by name, a clever mechanism to add universal appeal to the film.) There follows an extended masterpiece of a suspense scene as the woman gets out of the car to wander through the forest while her husband changes the tire; she is oblivious to the strikes of yellow lightning that crash into the brush beside her, though the day is only partly cloudy. (Fortunately for all involved, the lightning does not cause a fire, or have any effect whatsoever.)

Apparently hypnotized by a pulsing sound (or, perhaps, limited by her acting abilities), the woman walks to the bottom of a cliff. Suddenly, a black cat falls through the air and the woman finds her hands bloodied. Her husband finds her in a field. “I want to get away,” she tells him, crying. “I’m going to die. What did we come out here for? What did you get us lost for?”

She shows him her hands, which are back to normal now, and he picks her up and carries her back to their Mercedes while the sinister cat watches from the bushes. In a bizarre twist, at the end of the scene the filmmakers reveal that the Mercedes’s license plate indicates the couple is from Florida!

At night, rain starts, and the couple drives to what appears to be the largest church in the world, several times the size of the Vatican. The man knocks on a door and is eventually let in by an elderly woman and her husband, a man dressed in olive drab soldier’s garb and sporting a large hunting knife. The church turns out to be a mansion (or possibly a hotel). While the traveling couple (who have clearly driven from Florida to rural France) take shelter from the storm, the old woman gives us the film’s backstory: “Two years ago…then a couple years ago…a fishing boat sailed by three good men just vanished when the sea was completely calm. And it all happens at the same time of year. You know very well that it would be a long list if we were to add up all the strange catastrophes that strike us just before or during or after the equinox.”

“What are you trying to say?” the young wife asks, perhaps expressing the feelings of the audience. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The old man growls and lights his cigar. He spurts in one breath, “Ah, they’re just stories and legends and they say that one or maybe two sailboats got wrecked when the windjammers used to follow our coastlines to stay clear of the big storms we were getting, mostly at equinox time—you know, that’s when the day is exactly as long as the night; that’s when we get the highest tides. They say five brothers lighted channel fires that led the ships straight into the rocks. Shipwreckers used to do that, you know. Bandits, they were. Murderers who killed and plundered.”

The film cuts to a flashback of five men (one shirtless and one wearing a pink dress) lighting fires and a sailing ship floating among rocks. The old man goes on about a British ship that once wrecked nearby after picking up a mysterious cargo in Cairo. The five brothers disappeared when the cliffs collapsed. Also, the old couple adds, there is an old reclusive woman who lives nearby who might be a descendant of the brothers, and she lives with her idiot, misshapen son and a daughter nobody has ever seen.

The film immediately cuts to the idiot man-monster and his gypsy mother, who live in a barn among the goats.

Later, in the middle of the night, the younger man and woman sleep in a bed, and the woman hears a horse walking around outside. She overhears the elderly couple saying the horse is “the devil’s mount” and they must kill it, so the old man goes outside with a shotgun. The young woman follows him to the street and is frightened by the black horse, though the man doesn’t find the horse until later, when he walks to the cliffs for no apparent reason and brandishes the shotgun as if it were a shovel, for even less apparent reason. In any case, the horse escapes and the man disappears.

Then, in one of the most visionary and strange shots in any film in history, an ancient wooden sailing ship pushes through the rocks of the cliffs, accompanied by the sound of paper crumpling.

Meanwhile, the young woman has been so frightened by the image of a black horse that she gets into her Mercedes and drives away while her husband remains asleep in the church/mansion/hotel. Unfortunately, the horse blocks the road, so she immediately gets out of the Mercedes and walks through a nearby cornfield, where she encounters the man-monster, still dressed in a Nazi uniform, and his mother as they wheel a coffin to a churchyard. 

And, perhaps predictably, the sailing ship pushing through the rocks releases some barrels and a crate, which breaks open to reveal an Egyptian sarcophagus, which in turn opens to reveal (as all sarcophagi do) a living mummy.

The mummy walks toward the black horse at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, nearby, the young woman runs through the cemetery where the monster and his mother are burying some things and unburying others. The woman falls into an open grave, where she is discovered by the monster and his mother. After screaming a few times, she faints.

At the same time, in an extended sequence that seems to violate the rules of time and space, the old man who owns the church/mansion/hotel continues in his attempts to shoot the devil horse with his shotgun, though his process involves standing in the same position in a dark field and firing in random directions while the horse runs across another field in front of the white cliffs of Dover. Needless to say, the man’s strategy of firing randomly is unsuccessful, and the horse makes its way to the graveyard to watch the monster grope the unconscious young woman. The monster’s mother decides that the young woman resembles her own deceased daughter, so she instructs her son to toss her into a vault. “Just dump her in.”

Fortunately for the woman, the man-monster is distracted by the devil horse, who kicks him in the stomach, causing blood to gush from the monster’s mouth. The horse kicks again and part of the monster’s head is cracked open.

This distraction allows the woman to climb out of the vault, though the monster’s mother tries to seal her in. In a spectacular stunt, the monster staggers through a brick wall, sending some of the bricks flying at his mother, injuring her enough to allow the woman to get free of the vault. Finally, the woman murders the monster’s mother by slamming an iron (or perhaps rubber) cemetery gate into her stomach.

Of course, the young woman’s night of terror is not over yet, as the mummy stumbles into the graveyard just before she is able to leave. The mummy moves the lid of another vault and raises his arm, causing a dead girl wearing a frizzy black wig to rise out of the vault.

The mummy and the undead girl walk to the cemetery gates, but then they turn around for unexplained reasons. The young woman crawls away from them, only to find the mummy directly in front of her, and then the dead girl. While the mummy drools blue slime from his suddenly-revealed skeletal face, the man-monster recovers from his head being kicked open.

Of course, the film is not done with the old man attempting to shoot the horse. The next foggy morning, the man is still in the field, rotating back and forth and firing at the horse, though his attempts are still unsuccessful.

Also during the same morning, the young woman continues to run away from the man-monster, whose gaping head wound slows him down only slightly (he needs to keep the flap of skin and bone attached to his temple by using his left hand).      

He chases the woman through another cornfield but eventually she finds where she left her Mercedes. In a thrilling confrontation, the monster reaches the Mercedes just as the woman starts the car. He climbs onto the hood and she gently drives forward, parking close to a post, which appears to injure the monster further for no apparent reason. As he squirms on the ground, she wisely douses him with gasoline and lights him on fire. Then she drives away, satisfied that her pursuer is finally dead.

Ironically, she soon runs out of gas and realizes in a flashback that she has used the only available gas to ignite her pursuer. Nevertheless, she continues to turn the ignition key, hoping to start the car, but this is somehow unsuccessful. She has no choice but to run through the woods, where she eventually runs past the mummy and the living dead girl, finally finding the old man still shooting at the horse. She begs him for help but he is convinced the man-monster, the mother, the mummy, and the zombie girl are not a problem—it’s the devil horse that is the problem. “Screw the mummy,” he replies when she tells him she saw it.

After at least a half hour of continuing to shoot at the horse, the man finally shoots it (though we see only a symbolic freeze-frame on the shotgun’s barrel as it fires its final shot). We never see the horse again, and we never learn its significance.

As soon as he has shot the horse, the man ignores it, walking over to the cliffs where the ship sits in the middle of the mountain. “I was dead certain it was there!” the man exclaims. “I found the ship! There’s nothing to worry about anymore.”

The woman, however, believes the man should worry about the mummy, who is walking very slowly toward him. The old man shoots at the mummy, but the shotgun does no damage. “Get out of my way,” the old man tells the mummy. “I’m part of a mystery now. You got no power over me. The ship is mine now. I’m the master of the ghost ship! You’re nothing but my slave.”

Surprisingly, the threat of enslavement does not stop the creature. The mummy touches the man’s throat, causing blood to gush out and the man to fall over, dead (after a few minutes of moaning). Even more humiliatingly, the mummy steps on the old man’s stomach, forcing his innards to spill out.

The mummy and the living dead girl then walk hand-in-hand toward the cliffs and the sarcophagus…but the young woman has had enough. She takes the shotgun from the old man’s corpse and cleverly shoots a barrel of gunpowder that fell off the ship. It explodes.

The next morning, the young woman wakes up. Was everything a dream? The woman dresses and walks out of the church/mansion/hotel by herself. She speaks to the old woman hostess and asks what happened last night. “I’m looking for my husband,” she says.

The old woman says, “He drove off at the break of dawn.”

The young woman walks toward the cliffs. In the shocking finale, she finds some shotgun shell casings on the ground, then finds a piece of wood on which is written “Le Condor,” the name of the wrecked ship. In the end, she is attacked by a black cat and mysteriously disappears into the earth.

In a chilling coda, another motorist couple drives up to the church/mansion/hotel, where they are greeted by the old man (who has not lost his guts)…and where the man-monster, also alive again, and his mother pull a cart along the cobblestone street.

Among Devil Story's many surprises is its expansion from simplicity of the initial scenes, in which it appears to be a simple slasher film with a disfigured, SS-uniform-wearing killer, to the complexity of the storyline revealed piece by piece with the ghost ship emerging from the mountain, the mummy emerging from the sarcophagus that emerged from the ghost ship, the living dead girl in the frizzy black wig who resembles the heroine, the devil horse, etc. By the end of the film, it is unclear whether the heroine is awake or dreaming (or even alive), and the audience is left uncertain about the fates of all the characters and whether the events of the film ever happened at all.

While the opening of the film suggests a narrative that would fit comfortably within the slasher genre--and would make an interesting film in itself, if we simply followed the man-monster as he kills various motorists in the French countryside--the film becomes a good example of several other genres, including the one-dark-night fairy-tale genre (not too far off from Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural from 1973), not to mention the monster rally genre exemplified by Universal's House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). However, of course, Devil Story is a genre unto itself, as it never solves or even hints at solving its various mysteries: What happened to the heroine's husband? How did the old man recover after the mummy disemboweled him? How did the man-monster recover after the horse kicked half his head open? Did the black horse live or die? What happened to the Mercedes? And, finally, how did the couple drive from Florida to France?

Perhaps we will never learn the answers to these questions. But, and I say this with great confidence, we will never forget them.