Monday, December 14, 2009


TITLE: Devil's Nightmare
DESCRIPTION: A group of tourists, each representing one of the seven deadly sins, spends a terror-filled evening in a castle previously owned by a man who made a pact with Satan. Throw in '70s Euro-beauty Erika Blanc as a homicidal succubus, and you have a rather captivating piece of vintage gothic Belgian/Italian horror-sleaze.
DIRECTOR: Jean Brismee
YEAR: 1974
RUNTIME: 95 min

Other reviews of this film (the positive ones, at least) would have you believe this is, without a doubt, a "bad movie," but so bad it's actually great fun to watch. I was tempted to frame my review the same way, until it occurred to me that the rhetoric of that last statement is entirely self-serving: It's a cop-out way of saying I really enjoyed something despite its schlocky heritage, and to save face when others -- especially those unfamiliar with the common tropes and gimmicks of that same heritage -- find nothing redeeming about this piece at all.

But the truth is, I don't think this is a bad film. Quite the opposite: I found Devil's Nightmare to be exceptionally enjoyable on a surface level, as romping-good Euro-horror; and on a deeper level, I also found it to be a smart film -- that crucial difference between good films and truly good "bad" films. After all, with most bad films enjoyment is derived from unintended responses, such as when viewers laugh at something that's supposed to be scary or serious; or when more irony exists for the viewer than was originally laid out in the script. But if a film more routinely has you feeling the thrill of foreknowledge at times of its own choosing, and if there are indeed surprises of a gruesome or anticipatory nature embedded in the actual narrative, then it doesn't matter if the film hails from a time of flimsy plot premises and well-worn genre devices: It has done what it set out to do, and should be lauded for that success.

Certainly, there are missteps in this film (among which, a brief intrusion of sleazy soft-core reigns supreme), but what I found more striking was just how much actually works as part of a coherent whole. The film opens with a scene in Berlin, 1945, where the Baron-father of a newborn daughter takes the girl's life in her cradle. Is this just a case of aristocratic misogyny run amok? There's room for the viewer to wonder as the opening credits roll -- but soon enough a more tragic motive appears: the Baron's family has a curse affixed to the eldest daughter of any descendant, and if let live she will become a succubus to Satan himself. The Baron relates this story to a reporter years later, from his centuries-old castle home, and after the reporter dies of fright from what she witnesses on the property, seven tourists find themselves stranded in the region, in need of lodgings for the night. They aren't the only ones, however, and the addition of the stunning red-head Erika Blanc sets the whole evening's dark affairs in motion.

You can see, then, the tired tropes at play: the dark family secret, the foray of wide-eyed outsiders to a troubled European castle, the beautiful, enigmatic female lead, the foregrounding of the supernatural. But there are immediate, arresting differences, too. For one, the tourists' characters are drawn in more subtle strokes than one might expect -- so much so that a later thesis on the seven mortal sins is not readily apparent, while in hindsight a young priest's chess game with demon-pieces makes perfect sense as foreshadow. And the dialogue, though plagued by often distractingly bad dubbing, is itself measured and lively, with plot-progressing lines pleasingly interspersed among asides that build character tension in an organic fashion.

But the surprises don't just lie with engaging dialogue or distinct characters: The very turns in the film also hold their own, pleasing weight. The first time Blanc reveals her true face to viewers, the early special effects characterizing this transformation are nothing to scoff at; and there's something eerily reminiscent of The Pit and the Pendulum in the way implements of torture do her bidding in the castle's dark underbelly.

Yes, there are moments when the horror slips into comic artifice, such as when Blanc pulls at her cross-scalded face in anguish before the prideful young priest, but in the end director Jean Brismee surely, knowingly plays one final feat of strength by revealing his Satan as something quite true to Bergman's Seventh Seal (the sharp-boned figure of actor Daniel Emilfork certainly helping in this regard) and completes his piece with a next-day reverie of hauntingly ambiguous proportions. Are the souls who dared spend a night in the succubus' haunt truly saved, or did the penultimate deal with the devil last little longer than the blood upon which it was writ?

A film with character depth, sufficiently engaging dialogue, true moments of intentional irony and fright, and an ending both enigmatic and rich in reference to its predecessors surely cannot be called a bad film. Devil's Nightmare has all the absurdity of its stylistic archetypes against it, and it groans at times under the burden of the genre's expectations, but the piece is nonetheless well-orchestrated -- and a pleasure I hope to have occasion to watch again.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A dark night, a cold room, and much love for the best of bad euro-horror.

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