Color, 1985, 76 mins. 3 secs.
Directed by Bernard Launois
Starring Veronique Renaud, Marcel Portier, Catherine Day, Nicole Desailly, Pascal Simon
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Nanarland/Sheep Tapes (France R0 PAL) / WS (1.75:1) (16:9)
Have you ever seen a film so insane, so completely off the charts in every possible way that it defies any semblance of human logic , that it actually becomes an anti-masterpiece? If not, feast your eyes on Devil Story, a lunatic '80s French horror film apparently shot during a slow weekend in the countryside with some monster make-up and no finished script in sight. Though it was shot on film, this one fits snugly with the madcap philosophy of DIY shot-on-video horror films from the era where absolutely anything could and probably would happen in front of the camera.
For the hilarious first ten minutes or so, a short actor in a wrinkled demon mask (Simon) runs around in some woods killing every random person he encounters, including one clueless guy just looking for a gas station. When night falls, he returns to the clutches of his gypsy mother (or something like that) in some ruins where a mummy is being raised from its sarcophagus along with a black-haired Egyptian sorceress. Then there's a blonde girl (Renaud) wearing a slip and a yellow raincoat whose car gets stuck nearby, and after losing her boyfriend, she spends the entire night running from one supernatural menace to the next. And on top of that, a cranky old guy with a shotgun keeps trying and failing for hours to plant a bullet in his black stallion, which is apparently possessed and keeps running around him in circles. Eventually it all comes to a head in a triple-climax finale that makes no sense at all but will have fans of crackpot horror films clapping anyway.
Gory, absurd, and extremely entertaining if you're in the right frame of mind, this unsung brain melter boasts production values that make Eurocine look like Disney in comparison. Director Bernard Launois (who understandably gave up filmmaking after this having apparently realized there was no way he could top this one) seems to be going for kind of a Jean Rollin vibe at times with the funereal settings and pretty girls fleeing back and forth through natural settings, but the complete lack of poetry on any level turns this into a whole different beast entirely. On top of that, the rinky-dink Casio music score (which at times sounds like the intentionally ratty opening chords from Nekromantik) seems designed to drive viewers up the wall but is certainly unlike anything else you've ever heard.
Passed around in dupey gray market VHS editions for a while in dubbed form with Turkish subs, Devil Story got its first official DVD release in 2011 from the very enthusiastic folks at Nanarland and Sheep Tapes, who obviously realize they have a potentially huge cult film on their hands. The transfer is extremely modest; the few daylight scenes look fine, but the bulk of the night shots are so murky you can barely tell what's going on. It hardly matters though. Audio is presented in the original French and the English dub with no subtitle options; in this case the English option is fine since there's very little dialogue and most is spoken with the actors partially obscuring their faces anyway. Another audio option features "400 spectateurs ebahis en direct de la Cinematheque francaise," which means that, yes, they actually showed this film at that prestigious venue to a packed house, and you get to hear the uproarious result, a la the audience tracks on Rocky Horror and Pieces.
As for extras, the biggest here is "Il était une fois le diable" (32m47s) which features Launois, Renaud, appreciative fan Frank Henenlotter, writers Rurik Salle and Christophe Lemaire, and the Cinémathèque francaise's Jean-Francois Rauger. It's all in French apart from Henenlotter, but you'll get the idea of what they're talking about pretty easily. The actress and director seem amused by the film's resurgence, and it's apparent that, like all great films of this ilk, it was originally made with a completely straight face. Other supplements include a very funny new teaser (featuring Rauger discussing how the film's discovery almost destroyed his sanity), the original trailer, a goofy but often hilarious fake 7m17s documentary featurette called "Hollywood Devil Story" (which shows what would have happened if the film had become a smash hit and spawned a merchandising boom), a vintage three-minute excerpt on the making of the film from the news show FR3 Normandie including behind-the-scenes footage, a gallery of real lobby cards and very fake product tie-ins (including a pinball machine!), and a three-minute clip of some young guy wearing a scarf and reading a magazine on antiques talking about the film's depiction of horse possession. A handful of selected scenes (24m38s) are also included with optional director commentary in French. Simply put, this is one seriously nutso disc. (Incidentally, the packaging claims this is coded for Region 2, but it played on several Region 1-locked machines with no problems whatsoever; just make sure you can play PAL discs.)
After a long absence, Devil Story reared its head again in 2021 on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome (featuring the usual limited 5,000-unit slipcover edition) sporting a new 4K scan from the camera negative, proving we evidently live in the best of all possible worlds. The a/v upgrade here is so massive it's kind of stupid, with a wealth of additional detail on display and much better color timing that finally lets you see what's happening during that long nocturnal stretch in the middle. The French and English tracks are both included (DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono), finally with optional English subtitles (translated or SDH). The original main featurette is included here as "Once Upon a Time... Devil Story," now running 34m12s at NTSC speed and finally with English subs as well. The new "Once Upon a Time... Bernard" (28m12s) is a lengthy video interview with the director starting with his first exposure to cinema as a child and going through his various adventures in the film industry on some projects that are very, very far afield from the main feature. He doesn't get to Devil Story until the 20-minute mark, but it's worth it especially when he goes into the lack of a reasonable running time when shooting first wrapped up with only 52 usable minutes. ("I shot the horses because I had nothing else!") The selected scenes commentary gets ported over here after that, plus the original trailer and that 3-minute snippet of French TV coverage.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
Nanarland/Sheep Tapes (DVD)
Updated review on September 26, 2021