Belgium. Not a country that comes up all that often in conversations about Euro cult films, or horror films for that matter. Unless that conversation happens to be about DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE, that is.
Okay, or Harry Kümel’s much better DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS of the same year, but that’s a whole other column right there. This particular Belgian/Italian co-production is the only full-length feature from réalisateur belge Jean Brismée, but it’s certainly an interesting one – and sleazy as hell into the bargain.
A leaden-paced sepia-toned intro, set during an Allied bombing in 1945, sees German general Baron von Rhoneberg (Jean Servais) plunge a bayonet into his infant daughter, mere moments after her birth. Cut to the present day, and the aged Baron explains to a young reporter that a family curse means the first-born girl-child of every generation is destined to become a Succubus, and a servant of Satan. He also urges said reporter not to take any photos of the castle or its grounds. Said reporter does take photos of the castle and its grounds, and promptly winds up on the slab with the ‘Mark of the Devil’ burnt onto her arm.
Next thing you know, a tatty old minibus containing seven tourists is on its way, after taking directions from the creepiest man you’ve ever seen (Daniel Emilfork), who sure enough later turns out to be none other than The Devil Himself. Pulling up at the Baron’s awesome chateau, les touristes find that rooms are already prepared for them and a congenial sit-down dinner with their host is on the cards.
No sooner has von Rhoneberg told our hapless holidaymakers about the family curse than another guest arrives to join the dinner party – the mysterious and très sexy Lisa (Erika Blanc). From here on the long night of horror begins, with Lisa transforming into a terrifying Succubus to slay the party one-by-one in a manner corresponding to each of the Seven Deadly Sins. Can Father Alvin (Jacques Monseu) save the day without having his own soul damned to the realm of flames and pitchforks?
Striking Italian actress Erika Blanc (real name Enrica Bianchi Colombatto) was a Euro genre film regular that also appeared in Mario Bava’s KILL, BABY… KILL! (1966) and Emilio P. Miraglia’s THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (also ’71), but this is by far her most unforgettable role. Not only is she an iconic poster girl for all things Eurohorror in THAT incredible outfit, but also the way she suddenly transforms from jaw-droppingly gorgeous to skin-crawlingly loathsome – with the simple additions of a slap of make-up, a slight change in lighting, and a bit of face-pulling – is truly something to behold.
Billed just below Blanc is veteran Belgian actor Servais as our Baron, whose career high was the lead role in Jules Dassin’s French Noir masterpiece RIFIFI (1955). For the most part fairly subdued, one imagines he felt he was slumming it here, but he does come across as suitably defeated due to that pesky old family curse. When not moping about that, however, we do find him in his standard horror lab indulging in a spot of alchemy. Always a good idea for a man of leisure to have a hobby, I say, not to mention an additional income stream. More indelibly memorable than he, though, is late Chilean émigré actor Daniel Emilfork, in the role of Old Nick Himself. His strikingly unique fizog would later find its ultimate showcase in Jeunet and Caro’s CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995).
Generally, the characterisations never rise above the one-dimensional, as each character is reduced to one basic trait corresponding to a particular ‘Deadly Sin’. An extremely steamy and gratuitously protracted lesbian sex scene marks the participants out for ‘lust’, and, more originally, the ‘greed’ of Nancy (Colette Emmanuelle) leads to her being sucked into a pit of gold-dust – the fruits of the Baron’s successful alchemic endeavours.
Useless tour guide and bus driver Ducha (Christian Maillet) represents ‘gluttony’, and thus is always seen munching on chicken drumsticks or his secret stash of sausages, with extra-loud sound effects in case you haven’t already got the idea that he’s supposed to be somewhat gross. We can only guess that Mason (Lucien Raimbourg) represents ‘wrath’, as simply being a whingeing old git wasn’t one of the Deadly Sins last time I checked.
However, this lack of meaty character development isn’t much to the film’s detriment – with a tale such as this, these people are only ever going to be so many paper dolls moved around to suit the demands of the minimal plot. That’s right, it’s all about the dreamlike ambience, and this DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE has in spades. As with many of these low-rent gothic affairs, the use of a real castle instantly ups the production values. The film for the most part looks gorgeous, despite the fact that Brismée lacks the exciting directorial flourishes of a Bava or Argento.
A fine score by Alessandro Alessandroni (best known as Ennio Morricone’s chief western whistler) adds immeasurably to this sublimely gothic atmos. The haunting-if-slightly-cheesy main theme, featuring harpsichord and ethereal wordless vocals from one ‘Giulia’ is good of its type, but what really elevates the film is the chilling sustained electronic notes Alessandroni employs for the more sinister scenes; they sound like malefic winds of hell, or some ancient evil force trying enter our world from another dimension, egging our Succubus on as she goes about her murderous business. Alessandroni also scored LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1971) and KILLER NUN (1979) but neither would be quite as eerily effective as this.
Re-released numerous times by Redemption/Salvation over the years, Brismée’s film remains a revered old chestnut in euro cult and vintage horror circles. And quite rightly so, say I. But bringing it up as a conversation piece on your next trip to Bruges or Antwerp will still most likely lead to blank (Blanc?) expressions in response.