Wednesday, February 27, 2019

La plus longue nuit du diable (1971)

... aka: Au service du diable (In the Service of the Devil)
... aka: Castle of Death
... aka: Devil's Longest Night, The
... aka: Devil's Nightmare, The
... aka: Devil Walks at Midnight, The
... aka: La nuit des pétrifiés (Night of the Petrified)
... aka: La terrificante notte del demonio (The Terrifying Night of the Devil)
... aka: Nightmare of Terror
... aka: Succubus
... aka: Vampire Playgirls

Directed by:
Jean Brismée

Berlin, 1945. As a bombing of the city is commencing, a Nazi general's wife dies giving birth. Once he learns that the newborn is a girl, he sends the servants out of the room and then stabs it to death. As it turns out, the general is among a long line of Von Rhoneberg's, who believe their family is cursed due to a descendant selling his soul to the devil. More specifically, they believe the eldest female in each generation are cursed to be a succubus, a servant of Satan described by one character as "demons that adopt feminine appearance in order to seduce men and lead them to perdition." Cut to the present day and the Nazi general is living as Baron Von Rhoneberg (Jean Servais) in a giant castle out in the middle of nowhere with maid / cook Martha and creepy butler Hans (Maurice De Groote). A female journalist who attempts to snap photos without permission is found dead on the castle grounds. It appears she saw something so frightening that she was literally scared to death. The locals believe this signals the return of the succubus to the castle.

It's the perfect time for a tour bus to get lost after hitting a dead end; forcing the group to seek refuge at the Von Rhoneberg castle during a storm. Among the stranded are gluttonous bus driver Max Ducarte (Christian Maillet), whose appetite for food and drink seems to know no end, elderly, grumpy and wrathful chronic complainer Mr. Mason (Lucien Raimbourg) and handsome Alvin Sorel (Jacques Monseau), a seminarian who takes great pride in his calling, his celibacy and his chess playing abilities. There's beautiful but sloth-like blonde Regine (Shirley Corrigan) and her lustful, bisexual friend Corinne (Ivana Novak), who considers "collecting" married men a hobby. Rounding out the group is unhappily married couple Nancy (Colette Emanuelle) and Howard (Lorenzo Terzon) Foster. She's wealthy yet envious of all of the beautiful young women, while he's with her only to satisfy his own greed and has a wandering eye that doesn't mind wandering even while his old lady's watching.

All of the guests / victims represent the seven deadly sins (a decade and a half before Se7en got praised for a similar "creative" set-up), though there's enough overlap in some of the characters / sins to put into question just who is what. I've seen different theories and different labels assigned to characters. For instance, Nancy isn't just envious, she's also greedy and angry. And Corinne could be viewed as lustful or envious of married couples, hence why she "especially" goes after men who are taken. However, I think what I have as designations are what was originally intended, going by the bits of dialogue and nonverbal cues we're given.

Ducarte as gluttony, Mason as wrath, Regine as sloth and Alvin as pride are obvious and seldom disputed, but there are a lot of disagreements about the Corinne, Howard and Nancy characters. However, Corinne spends nearly all of her time seducing or having sex (lust), seemingly every other shot of Nancy is her glaring at the younger women, prompting her husband to tell her to stop being so jealous (envy) and Howard is only with Nancy because of her wealth ("My money is all that interests you!") which would put him right in the greed category.

After everyone meets the Baron, gets a grand tour of the castle to learn of its blood-soaked history, are shown to their rooms and begin to settle down to have dinner, yet another guest arrives: a sultry redhead named Lisa Muller (Erika Blanc). The mysterious late visitor is, of course, the oft-mentioned succubus / family curse and proceeds to creep around corridors later that night and murder each of the "sinners" one by one. Her human guise is of a slinky temptress in flesh-baring attire but once her true demonic form emerges she's given a simple but effective slathering of gray grease paint with a few black accents. However, the make-up isn't what sells this creature, it's the actress herself. Not just a pretty face, Blanc is a far more skilled performer than usually given credit for and throws herself into this role, giving a wonderfully expressive, Lon Chaney-esque performance that's highly memorable.

Some of the usual debits that plague similar films are here, including poor dubbing / dialogue and a midsection that drags, but the many pluses help to compensate. There's good Gothic mood thanks to both the setting (the castle has both a scientist's lab where the Baron practices alchemy and a torture chamber in the attic) and the very atmospheric score by Alessandro Alessandroni (with vocals from his wife, Giulia De Mutiis). Some of the murder sequences are fun, including drowning in gold dust and death by guillotine and spiked sarcophagus. And the ending is rather interesting as this explains the true origin of the succubus and goes down a "make a deal with the devil" route that's somewhat unexpected, plus makes great use of unusual-looking character actor Daniel Emilfork in a surprise role. All that combined with Blanc's work makes for an above average film of this type.

This has been one of the major workhorses of Euro-cult cinema for nearly half a century now and, I'd venture to guess, also one of the gateway drugs that's gotten many a viewer into Italian horror in the first place. It was first released in the U.S. as The Devil's Nightmare in 1972, then was re-issued to theaters a second time as Vampire Playgirls in 1980. It popped up on home video countless times both under the first title and a host of other ones like Castle of Death and Succubus. It has been released numerous times on DVD and a halfway decent print was a fixture in many of those low cost multi-movie packs distributed by companies like Brentwood. In other words, this is one of the most readily available and viewed Italian genre films of its era.

There are notable differences between the version with the title screen Devil's Nightmare (the original U.S. VHS release) and the French version with the title screen La terrificante notte del demonio ("The Terrifying Night of the Devil") that's most commonly distributed on DVD nowadays. The Devil's Nightmare print has the opening scenes tinted blue instead of sepia, most of a lesbian scene removed and a few other snips, but it also has more thorough credits. It lists three additional cast members during the opening credits plus has full end credits over shots of the burning bus, while the otherwise more complete French version just ends with a title card saying "Fine."

The Redemption (UK) release has a completely pointless intro featuring British actress Eileen Daly and a couple of blood-soaked topless blondes who fight over a human heart in front of Cannibal Holocaust stills (!?) that you're best off fast-forwarding past. A Blu-ray is slated for release the middle of next month (March 2019) by Mondo Macabro. In edition to all of the different versions of the film, there was also a tie-in novelization by co-writer Patrice Rhomm titled Au service du diable ("In the Service of the Devil"), which is also one of two French-release titles for the film itself. There was also an ultra low budget (10,000 dollar) "remake" in 2012 that no one seems to have watched. 

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