November 11, 2011

La plus longue nuit du diable (1971)

According to folklore, there were female demons that appeared in dreams, taking the form of a woman in order to seduce men and have sexual intercourse. They were called succubi, or in singular succubus (the male counterpart is called incubus), and supposedly their visits not only represented a big risk of damnation for the soul, but also a rapid deterioration of physical health that could lead to death. With this mix of dangerous evil and sexuality, it was only natural that the myth of the succubus would enter fiction, and can be found in the works of authors ranging from Honoré de Balzac to Orson Scott Card. In film, succubi were naturally suited for the horror genre, and one of the films that explore this concept is an Italian-Belgian co-production from 1971, known in Italian as "La terrificante notte del demonio" and in French as "La plus longue nuit du diable", which could be roughly translated as "The Devil's Longest Night". The film also had several names in English, though the most common is "The Devil's Nightmare".

Also known as "Vampire Playgirls", "La plus longue nuit du diable" is the story of six tourists who travel through the Belgian mountains in a bus driven by Mr. Ducha (Christian Maillet). They find the road blocked and night is coming, but to their fortune, a farmer (Daniel Emilfork) tells them to go to castle Von Rhoneberg, where the Baron will surely allow them to spend the night. The group arrives to the Baron's castle, and to their surprise, they are informed that they were expected, so they enter the castle. Baron Von Rhoneberg (Jean Servais) gets to meet the group of travelers, which is made of young seminarist Alvin Sorel (Jacques Monseau), the old Mr. Mason (Lucien Raimbourg), Howard and Nancy Foster (Lorenzo Terzon and Colette Emmanuelle), and two friends, Corinne (Ivana Novak) and Regine (Shirley Corrigan). An eight guest arrives to the castle, Lisa Müller (Erika Blanc), a young and beautiful woman looking for refuge. However, her presence will trigger strange events related to the Von Rhoneberg curse.

Producer, Pierre-Claude Garnier, along writer Patrice Rohmm, wrote the screenplay for "La plus longue nuit du diable" with the central idea of having each of the guests represent one of the seven deadly sins. The succubus begins to murder the tourists using their vices to entice them and having them to die in mortal sin, so the Devil can collect their souls. A fairly original premise that makes for several interesting situations, as while most of the characters are merely archetypes of their respective sin, Garnier and Rohmm manages to built out of them a group of well defined characters. Particularly interesting is the relationship that's built between the seminarist and Lisa, as the young man begins a battle between his beliefs and his desires. Unfortunately, there's nothing more besides the seven deadly sins concept, as the theme of Von Rhoneberg's curse is only thinly explored, and there is also the odd inclusion of a subplot about a murdered reporter that doesn't go anywhere.

However, if the plot is thin, director Jean Brismée surely makes the most of it, as he makes of "La plus longue nuit du diable" an enormously atmospheric Gothic film of a surreal beauty. Two elements stand out in the film: the remarkable work of cinematography done by André Goeffers and the haunting, ethereal score composed by Alessandro Alessandroni. Giving great use to Goeffers' eye, director Brismée constructs a movie with the logic of a nightmare. Taking full advantage of the beautiful location he had for the film, Brismée conveys a nightmarish atmosphere of dread that give the film an ethereal mood. The dose of eroticism he adds to the film is appropriate, fitting the story's tone without detracting the attention to the horror in the film. In fact, "La plus longue nuit du diable" perfectly conveys that mix of malicious evil and sensuality that the succubi myths evoke. Alessandroni's score is perhaps the film's highlight, as he creates a haunting work of somber beauty, enhanced by the vocal work of his sister Giulia.

The acting is a mixed bag, as while there are some very good performances, others end up being too bland. As Alvin Sorel, Jacques Monseau is appropriate in his portrayal of a doubting young man, torn between the dignity he aims to represent, and his carnal desires. The gorgeous Erika Blanc (of "Operazione paura" fame) plays Lisa, the mysterious young woman who turns out to be the herald of the devil, the succubus. As Lisa, Erika displays her enormous talent to look both seductive and classy, often transmitting more with a simple facial gesture than with her lines. However, this facial expressiveness of her is shown best when her Succubus persona appears, as Erika Blanc manages to fully transform her image from one of great beauty to an horrific representation of Death. Certainly, the decision of having a subtle make-up helps, but it's Blanc who truly elevates the result. The rest of the cast is perhaps less interesting, with the exception of Daniel Emilfork, who's particularly chilling as the Devil himself.

"La plus longue nuit du diable" is a film of extremes, having elements of great quality yet at the same time being particularly weak in several aspects. Perhaps what harms the film the most is the bane of so many films: a poorly developed screenplay. Certainly, the seven deadly sins angle is notable in the way it's explored, and the film really takes off once the tourists begin to meet their demise. However, this happens later in the film, with the first part being not only the tourists' arrival and introduction, but the strange segment about the reporter. This is perhaps the strangest element in the film, as it serves no purpose other than to introduce the VOn Rohneberg curse. Anyways, it's a testament of Jean Brismée's talent how he managed to create such an atmospheric film out of such a thing screenplay. Also, the lack of budget is particularly notorious, as despite its great locations, the film does have pretty cheap special effects that deter from the viewing experience.

Despite its problems, "La plus longue nuit du diable" is a heavily underrated jewel of European horror that deserves to be better remembered. It was Jean Brismée's last film before retiring (he became a teacher at Belgium's Institut national supérieur des arts du spectacle et des techniques de diffusion) and showcases one of the best performances by the beautiful Erika Blanc. Certainly it's not a film that has aged well, but amongst the many horror erotica films done in the 70s, Brismée's take on the succubus myth is a remarkable work of great beauty. It's certainly tame for today's standards, but the important thing about "La plus longue nuit du diable" is its surreal atmosphere. It certainly lives up to its English title of "Devil's Nightmare", as that's the kind of logic the film has.


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