The first time I watched Bernard Launois’s 1986 French horror film, DEVIL STORY (“IL ETAIT UNE FOIS LE DIABLE”), I was initially left with pangs of regret. Not because I disliked what I saw but because I chose to watch the first and only copy I could find – a grainy VHS transfer without English-language dubbing or subtitles. It’s not an especially talky movie but the absence of clear dialogue left me ill-prepared to digest the visuals I saw unfold. After seeing a crisp restoration with subtitles more recently, I wished I could replicate the feeling of that first time because there’s something special about an old man blasting a shotgun at a frisky horse while screaming in French that works better when you don’t understand a single word of it.
The film opens with a grunting monster of a man (Pascal Launois, credited here as Pascal Simon) struggling to emerge from a tent because he’s a clumsy oaf. His hands are bloody, the nylon fabric of the tent is caught on his leg; he’s carrying a knife and wearing a coat with SS and Nazi insignias. His head is bald, bulbous, deformed, and old, looking like a neglected root vegetable. The victim’s body is revealed on the ground; a young man’s chest wound continues to pump with blood long past his life’s expiration. The monster stumbles away, grunting in abject confusion. Close by, a woman skips around in the woods, collecting kindling for a campfire. She’s both lost and confused and takes a wrong turn into the path of the monster, who strikes her with a spiked glove. His repeated punches to the back of her head kill her – her wound also spurts postmortem blood – and he drags and drops both victims’ bodies into a dry well for reasons unknown. As the day turns to twilight, the monster leads a black horse back home and leaves a basket of greens for the horse to eat.
The next day, a much older couple breaks down on the side of the road. The man leaves with a gas canister to find fuel for the car and he walks into the path of the monster. Delighted, the man asks if he knows where to find a gas station and the monster responds by killing him with his knife. He grunts and growls. Following that, he kills the man’s wife with buckshot from the end of a shotgun. The monster grunts more and he disappears into the woods with his weapons of death.
Later that afternoon, a much younger couple breaks down on the side of the road. While the man fetches repair tools from the trunk, his blonde female companion (Veronique Renaud) wanders off and becomes transfixed by a meowing black cat on the side of a cliff. It dive-bombs her face, leaving her hands scratched and covered in blood – she screams with feline fright! When her male companion runs over to check on her, the bloody scratches are gone – they never happened. Their car may have Florida license plates, but weird things are happening in France.
Fortunately, just before nightfall, the couple finds a castle occupied by an older couple who agrees to host them. After the wife (Nicole Desailly) prepares tea for the guests, the husband (Marcel Portier) entertains them with an old yarn about a gang of French brothers who used beach fires to crash merchant ships on the rocks, then killed the ship’s crew and plundered the loot onboard. The couple’s opinions about the authenticity of this tale differ, but on one thing they agree: descendants of the brothers – an old woman and her deformed son – live nearby in a cottage. Like anyone holed up in a spooky castle, the old couple is also concerned about the imminent lunar equinox. Outside, a black horse is working itself into a frenzy at the castle’s gates. Weird things are happening during the equinox.
The blonde woman is restless and explores outside; she spends the night and most of the next day in a rain slicker and heavy galoshes fleeing all sorts of malevolent forces. There’s a doppelganger in a very large wig and the monster who looks like a melting wax figure of Peter Boyle vomits blood in multiple scenes. There are chases set in a cornfield. An old wooden ship materializes out of the cliffside, dropping powder kegs and crates below. A mummy emerges from a sarcophagus and drools pastel goo. The old man spends the entire night shooting at the black horse but never hitting his target.
However loose and jovial it may have been for a group of mostly first-time actors working on an ultra-low-budget horror movie in the Normandy region of France, I can assure you that nobody was having more fun on this film set than the horse at the center of the film’s mystery. In fact, according to Launois’s interview on Vinegar Syndrome’s 2021 release, the part was played by two horses – one of which temporarily escaped – and they physically fought each other on set. The chaos didn’t stop there; Launois’s original production team only shot 55 minutes of footage before he dismissed them over substandard work, and he shot the additional coverage needed to get to an 80-minute threshold with a skeleton crew.
Blood doesn’t ooze or spray, instead it spurts from wounds in pulsing pumps. Monsters grunt in angry annoyance like they’re sending back undercooked eggs at a diner. Animal sound effects from birds and horses are used in the way other films might use a combination of katydids and crickets. Violins co-mingle with keyboards and foreboding synths. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” is spammed without shame. All the rules that lend themselves to narrative coherence and emotional connection with an audience are bent, broken, or tossed out of a moving vehicle.
Throughout DEVIL STORY, it feels as if every object in motion – whether human, cat, mummy, horse, or car – is on its own predetermined loop, each one from a completely different film. That the director managed to stitch them all together through the magic of editing for the purpose of creating something resembling a narrative film is nothing short of miraculous. The most egregious example might be the repeating scenes where the old man from the castle attempts to vanquish the “devil” horse he believes is causing the chaos. The filmmakers make no attempt to establish the geography of the scene or the spatial relationship between man and horse. He aims and fires his shotgun in all directions without reloading. The old man aims off-screen in one direction as the horse is running directly past him (in-frame) in the other. The man has infinity ammunition. The horse has infinity armor, infinity energy, and infinity lives.
The director’s original goal was supposedly a French take on the 1980s American horror movie; the outcome was a crude outline of a film reduced to its most basic components – bloody but tedious kills, grotesque but cartoonish imagery, repetitive sound and musical cues, monsters, and a young woman in danger. Was Launois trying to say something about what he perceived as creative bankruptcy in American horror? No one can say for sure whether the final piece was born more out of his contempt for the genre trappings or due to the various cut corners, but he created something memorable for all sorts of reasons. (For all we know, it was a cinematic treatise on the importance of regular automobile maintenance). Because of the threadbare plot, DEVIL STORY is more of a dreamy vibe than a film and not everyone is going to sit for that, even at just 76 minutes. Launois was a writer and producer who directed six films prior to this one, but he never worked as a writer, producer, or director again. Following her debut in this film, lead actress Veronique Renaud left the film industry entirely.
Through its own technical irregularities and miscues, this film manages to rewrite the rules of cinema and come up with its own unique language using a vocabulary not meant to be understood, merely observed. DEVIL STORY is the underground French free-jazz of low-budget 1980s supernatural slasher films.