Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Random Movie Report #32: The Devil's Nightmare

The next film in this series is the closest to good so far, with signs of actual effort having been made and not all going to waste. But first, an oddity- the presentation on this particular disc (which I have not been able to locate on Amazon, hence no linkage) features an 8-minute prologue by some outfit called “Redemption”, which basically tries to present the film in the style of a Vampira/Elvira set-up, but with soft porn, as some woman in bondage get-up and fangs introduces a pair of nymphomaniac cannibal sisters, which is the sort of thing that sounds sexier than it is, and some weird slow-motion posing goes on for a few minutes before the movie itself is introduced, only I’m fairly sure this footage was shot with no regard to whatever the movie would be since the woman then talks about early Seventies Italian cannibal movies, of which this pretty much is NOT an example. This goofy set-up does not appear on any of the other films, so I have no idea how it ended up here, but the chapter stops aren’t set up so that you can skip past the 8-minute (!) pageantry. Pointless rant, I know. But be warned.

THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE is a 1971 “old dark house” movie from Europe, which means it’s the kind of movie that’s not so much about plot as it is about visual motifs and creative death scenes and cool music and attractive women without too much clothing. On this level it’s pretty well-made, but it suffers a surprising lag once the actual murders start, and though it takes up some interesting themes it’s just a tad too cynical to explore them fully (a problem with a lot of European horror films, for some reason.) It’s just a little too underdone to call a good movie, though fans of the genre will likely find stuff to enjoy.

We open in Berlin in 1945, where a woman dies giving birth and her husband, a Wermacht general (Jean Servais), is dismayed to find the child is a girl. As bombs fall around the household, he christens the infant, and then stabs it. Years later, the man is living on his own in a giant mansion, where a reporter who asks too many questions about an apparent family curse is stalked and killed by... something. Meanwhile, seven people on a guided tour of Europe find themselves lost, and a helpful yet sinister looking local directs them to the mansion, where the staff is apparently expecting their arrival. The guests, including the gluttonous tour guide, a perpetually cranky old man, a miserable couple, a seminary student, a very tired lesbian and her homewrecking bisexual companion, are more than willing to wait out the night, but this happens to be a fateful evening, as the mysterious Lisa (Erika Blanc) shows up at the house, apparently in connection to the ancient family curse. Hundreds of years ago, the elder of the Von Rhonebergs sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for whatever services the devil’s supposed to perform. (The film does not go into much detail. I imagine light cleaning for some reason.) As part of the bargain, the devil apparently cursed each firstborn female child of the Von Rhoneberg clan to become a succubus, a servant of evil tempting souls into damnation. Lisa ever-so-subtly hints that she might be that very entity (especially when she takes to wearing a midriff-baring Emma Peel type suit), and the tourists start falling prey to elaborate and stylish temptations, each apparently connected to the classical Seven Deadly Sins.

And that’s pretty much the rest of the movie, which is almost a disappointment. The film sets up a very good atmosphere and some of the concepts have potential, but as the bodies pile up it becomes clear that this is all the film is going to do with what it’s set up. The individual murders are fairly creative, but put together the experience is still repetitive. Near the end, it starts to take an interesting turn, but a protracted epilogue undermines the drama, and you can see the actual ending coming a mile away- it’s the kind of cynical twist that undermines many a horror movie for no good reason.

Still, you have to give this one points for style. Even on a fuzzy-looking and tinny-sounding transfer, THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE is thick with mood. There’s a nice eerie theme song with fuzz-guitar and wordless female vocals, a torture chamber, and an alchemist’s lab (the elder Von Rhoneberg is apparently involved with the craft- everyone needs a hobby- and this somehow convinces one of the characters that he’s hiding a HUGE stash of gold somewhere. French horror, ladies and gentlemen.) Some of the visuals are quite inventive, and of course there are lovely European women without much clothing to look at. Interestingly enough, Blanc (who got her start in Italian photocomics) in succubus-mode (I’m REALLY not spoiling anything) is unexpectedly unflattering, with vaguely reptilian makeup. It’s nicely contrary to expectations and still creepy.

The one thing that really keeps me from putting this movie in the “good” category is how it handles the whole deadly sin aspect of the story. Some of the temptations are just obtuse enough to be kind of clever, but at the same time undermine a major plot point; the succubus is apparently killing these people in states of “mortal sin”, thus ensuring their souls get handed over to Satan. But the situations just don’t strike me as egregious enough to ensure eternal damnation, at least for the most part. To use the overeating tour guide as an example, stuffing yourself at a mysterious opulent feast in a barren kitchen hosted by a mysterious seductress who insists that this is all for you and you alone may be unbelievably stupid, but I’d like to think that God is kind of merciful when it comes to lapses of mental agility. (Similarly, I think the lazy blonde girl might just be very very tired from a crosscontinent bus trip. But then I’m a forgiving sort.) The whole morality play angle just doesn’t come off- the film is too insincere for it.

THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE comes close to being a solid horror film, but it overreaches a bit and tries to tackle a plot it doesn’t really want to, and gets bogged down in a series of inventive murders. Fans of this kind of Euro-horror movie will enjoy it, and though I was disappointed I thought it had its moments. Everyone else can pretty much pass this by.

Written by Jean BrismeƩ and Pierre-Claude Garnier
Directed by Jean BrismeƩ

Grade: C+

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