Plot: busload of tourists is forced to stay overnight in a creepy castle.
Compared to the rest of Europe, Belgium has always been something of a silent force within the cinematic landscape of cult and exploitation. Often overlooked and forgotten in favor of other countries in the Old World that had a more established reputation in the industry of cinema. That isn’t to say that Belgium hasn’t contributed in its own way. The country famously hosts the Flanders International Film Festival Ghent and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film (BIFFF) as well as co-producing the annual traveling extravaganza The Night Of Bad Taste terrorizing cinemas and cultural complexes all around Belgium and the Netherlands. Having never established a cinematic industry quite in the same way the neighboring France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy did for many years the country’s contributions to the cinematic arts were minimal but not insignificant. Belgian filmmakers concerned themselves mostly with culturally important bigger and smaller literary adaptations, rural dramas, prestigious biopics, the occassional action-thriller and comedies (sports and otherwise) there’s plenty to like in Belgian cinema.
Flanders has brought forth a number of important directors, most prominent among them Marc Didden, Robbe De Hert and Stijn Coninx. Didden revolutioned the Belgian cinematic landscape with the gritty drama Brussels by Night (1983), De Hert is mostly remembered for his Ernest Claes adaptation Whitey (1980) whereas Coninx reigned supreme in the eighties and nineties with the Urbanus comedies Hector (1987) and Koko Flanel (1990) as well as the Louis Paul Boon adaptation Daens (1992). Dominique Deruddere became an overnight sensation with the drama Everybody Famous! (2000). Jan Verheyen, a cult/exploitation cinema aficionado and co-organiser of The Night Of Bad Taste, helmed a string of dramas and thrillers with the likes of Team Spirit (2000), Alias (2002) and Dossier K. (2009). Erik Van Looy briefly became a Hollywood hopeful thanks to The Alzheimer Case (2003) (released internationally as The Memory Of A Killer) and Loft (2008).
Felix Van Groeningen established himself with the dramas The Misfortunates (2009) and The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012). In the French part of the country Jaco Van Dormael helmed the drama Toto the Hero (1991) and a student-film-turned-feature Man Bites Dog (1992) from Rémy Belvaux became an international cult favorite shooting Benoît Poelvoorde to superstardom. At the dawn of the new millennium Walloon filmmaker Fabrice du Welz quickly amassed a modest but respectable resumé including, among others, Calvaire (2004) and Vinyan (2008). The oeuvre of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, darlings of critics and audience alike, are internationally renowned for a reason. The same rings true for the beloved animated feature The Triplets of Belleville (2003) from Sylvain Chomet. These titles and directors you might have actually heard of or read about, but Belgium has a something of a miniscule but not unimportant history in fringe horror cinema too.
Unlike France, Germany, Spain and Italy, Belgium was never able to spin a cottage industry from whatever trends or movements happened in European cinema. Neither does the country have, or ever had, a grand tradition in horror or genre cinema - a few notable exceptions notwithstanding. In the early seventies documentary maker Harry Kümel helmed the haunted house movie Malpertuis (1971) as well as the erotic vampire fantastique Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Belgium helped co-produce Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973), a valentine to Lina Romay. By the mid-to-late 1980 and early 1990s Kortrijk-based writer/producer/director Johan Vandewoestijne (as James Desert) singlehandedly put the country on the map with deranged shlock as Rabid Grannies (1988) and State of Mind (1994) (co-produced by that other The Night Of Bad Taste co-organiser, Jan Doense). After a long break Vandewoestijne returned to writing/directing in 2014 and has been unstoppable since. The most famous Belgian co-production, of course, is the ill-fated Dutch slasher disasterpiece Intensive Care (1991), a horror exercise so inept that not even a briefly topless Nada van Nie could save it. In more years Jonas Govaerts delivered the excellent Cub (2014) and Julia Ducournau debuted with the coming-of-age horror allegory Grave (2016).
1971 was a banner year for the European fantastique and vampire movie. That year offerings as diverse as Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins Of Evil (1971), Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), that other famous Belgian co-production Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), and Girl Slaves Of Morgana LeFay (1971) were released in cineplexes. This offered motivation enough for producers Pierre-Claude Garnier and Zeljko Kunkera to put together their own gothic horror revival production. Chosen to direct was Jean Brismée, a mathematician by trade, who worked as an instructor at the prestigious INSAS (Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des techniques de diffusion) in Brussels. Brismée was a specialist in short features and contemporary art documentaries. The screenplay for The Devil’s Nightmare was written by Patrice Rhomm and Brismée based on an original treatment by producer Garnier (as Charles Lecocq). For location shooting Garnier was able to secure the Chateau d'Antoing in Hainault, Belgium and a cast consisting of local talent (Jean Servais, Lucien Raimbourg, Daniel Emilfork, Jacques Monseau) with international name stars as Erika Blanc, Lorenzo Terzon, Shirley Corrigan and Ivana Novak and Alessandro Alessandroni providing the score. The Devil’s Nightmare (released back at home in Belgium as La plus longue nuit du diable or The Devil's Longest Night) was Corrigan’s big-screen debut after a number of decorative roles and she wasn’t informed of the snake scene until her arrival in Belgium. Whereas much of the talent on the production was Italian, The Devil’s Nightmare is a decidedly Belgian affair.
Berlin, 1945. Somewhere in Germany a Nazi general is witness to the passing of his wife during childbirth. The general is informed that long-desired kin is a girl, forcing him to do the unthinkable. He takes the freshly-born infant girl somewhere out of sight and stabs her with his bayonet. A quarter of a century passes and a group of seven tourists traveling in their single-deck 1952 Opel Blitz bus are forced to make an overnight stop in the environs of the Black Forest in southwest Germany. The road to their intended destination appears to be blocked and night is swiftly descending. The group – driver Mr. Ducha (Christian Maillet), cranky senior citizen Mason (Lucien Raimbourg), bickering married couple Howard and Nancy Foster (Lorenzo Terzon and Colette Emmanuelle), libertine adolescent minxes Regine (Shirley Corrigan), the ditzy go-go boot wearing platinum blonde and her firm-bosomed brunette friend Corinne (Ivana Novak) as well as seminarist Father Alvin Sorel (Jacques Monseau, as Jacques Monseu) – is lucky to happen into a strange looking local farmer who points them to the nearby castle Von Rhoneberg. Seeing no other option they head to the castle to seek lodging for the night.
At château Von Rhoneberg they are welcomed by butler Hans (Maurice De Groote, as Maurice Degroot) and the housekeeper (Frédérique Hender) who tell them they were expecting them. The butler escorts every guest to their respective room informing them of the sordid history of murder and death that comes with each. A few hours later they are invited to join the Baron (Jean Servais) at a bacchanalian banquet where he details the curse that has been looming over his bloodline for several decades. At the very last minute a mysterious eighth guest arrives in the form of Lisa Müller (Erika Blanc) who, despite protests from the housekeeper, manages to talk her way into the château. In no time Lisa worms her way into the hearts of each guest by indulging their every desire. Ducha is treated to more food than he’ll ever be able to consume. Regine treats herself to a warm, foamy bath before Corinne comes on to her strongly and the two soon find themselves in the throes of sapphic passion. Corinne has caught the eye of frustrated middle-aged Howard and before long they are in a tryst too. Nancy is informed about the alleged buried treasure in the vault, quenching her thirst for riches. As convention would dictate the Baron engages in alchemic - and occult experiments deep in the bowels of the château. What nobody seems to notice is that wherever Lisa goes death inevitably follows. As the guests one by one fall victim to Lisa’s considerable charms only the righteous and celibate Father Alvin Sorel can repel and cast out the unholy forces of evil at work in the château. Which only leaves the question: is Sorel’s faith strong enough to stop Lisa the succubus and Satan (Daniel Emilfork), her master?
What has given The Devil’s Nightmare its longevity is not only Erika Blanc’s fantastic performance but the screenplay's 7 deadly sins motif. Each of the seven visitors is given a creative death scene directly related to the sin they represent. While the premise is deceptively simple and the castle locations as brooding and atmospheric as any gothic horror worth its stripe is ought to be, the real star of The Devil’s Nightmare is Erika Blanc. What a difference a little black lipstick, nail polish and some minimal old-age make-up makes. Blanc does more with minimal make-up and a revealing evening dress than others do with every tool at their disposal. Blanc was a fixture in spaghetti westerns, Eurospy, commedia sexy all’Italiana and gothic horror whose claim to fame was that portrayed Emmanuelle in I, Emanuelle (1969) half a decade before Sylvia Kristel, Laura Gemser, Chai Lee and Dik Boh-Laai. While perhaps not nearly as famous as some of her contemporaries Blanc had that same regal demeanour as Helga Liné, Luciana Paluzzi, Dagmar Lassander and Silvia Tortosa. Among her most memorable appearances are her turns in Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), Spies Kill Silently (1966), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), The Red Headed Corpse (1971), and The Night Evelyn Came Out Of the Grave (1971). As soon as Lisa Müller takes on her deadly succubus form, she transforms from an alluring ginger seductress into an ashen, decrepit looking killer. Blanc sells it with some great facial contortions and silent cinema body language. Had The Devil’s Nightmare been made a decade later it would have probably starred Cinzia Monreale instead.
Almost all of the gothic horror plotpoints are accounted as there’s a dreaded family curse, buried treasure, mad science and conveniently blocked roads. The only thing amiss are rubber bats on strings, an ominous portrait of a deceased ancestor and a hidden monster. Testament to its efficiency is that Johan Vandewoestijne would recycle pretty much the main plot in its entirety for his Rabid Grannies (1988) set in a castle in Kortrijk. The Devil’s Nightmare never quite reaches Italian levels of surrealism nor is it as erotic as a Spanish or French productions of the day. It might not have commanded the sort of budget that the prime Italian gothic horrors of the decade prior did but that doesn’t stop The Devil’s Nightmare from transcending its budgetary limitations frequently. While Shirley Corrigan and Ivana Novak steam up the few scenes they’re in, it is Erika Blanc who truly is the pulsating black heart of the feature. There never was a tradition in gothic horror in Belgium making The Devil’s Nightmare and Daughters Of Darkness (1971) pretty much the only titles able to measure themselves with the finest that Mediterranean cult – and exploitation cinema of the day had to offer. If there’s anywhere to start exploring Belgian horror cinema The Devil’s Nightmare is a good starting point.