The real-life historical figure Gilles de Rais apparently inspired Paul Naschy — the so-called “Boris Karloff of Spain” — to create two of his greatest characters. de Rais, a 15th century French knight who fought alongside Joan of Arc and later became an aspiring alchemist, Satanist and serial child killer, first prompted Naschy to come up with the necromancer/Satanist character Alaric de Marnac for his 1973 classic Horror Rises From the Tomb. Though beheaded in 1454, de Marnac (played by Naschy himself) returned to cause major-league mishegas 520 years later in the film, and even came back for an encore in 1983’s Panic Beats, an even superior outing.
In 1974, though, Naschy wrote the screenplay for a more realistic look at the Gilles de Rais legend, for that year’s Devil’s Possessed (aka The Devil’s Possessed.) Here, Naschy plays a character named Gilles de Lancre, a noble French warrior who returns to his baronial castle after years of warring with the English. Not given what he deems sufficient recognition by his king, de Lancre decides to dedicate the remainder of his life to learning and science. His wife Georgelle (a wonderfully evil performance from the beautiful blonde Norma Sebre) and the quack alchemist Simon de Braqueville (Eduardo Calvo) convince him to seek the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, despite the necessity involved of sacrificing young village maidens to obtain their blood.
de Lancre initially refuses to proceed — “Science should not be related to crime,” he declares — but once on that slippery slope, he becomes increasingly more power hungry, sadistic and insane. Meanwhile, an old war buddy of his, the Captain Gaston de Malebranche (an energetic performance from the extremely likable Guillermo Bredeston), returns from a four-year captivity amongst the English, is appalled at the change in his old friend, and opts to lead a rebellion against the baron and his well-guarded castle…
Basically a sword-and-sandal flick with an increased payload of violence and gore, torture and mayhem, Devil’s Possessed has been well directed by frequent Naschy collaborator Leon Klimovsky and features authentic-looking costumes and realistically grubby sets. (Many of these medieval epics look a bit too clean and tidy to me; here, even the baron’s feasting chamber looks like the inside of a barn; hardly an ornate affair!) The picture sports some nice outdoor location shooting and a most impressive-looking castle, having been shot in Sesena (30 miles south of Madrid), Aldea del Fresno (30 miles west of Madrid) and Belmonte (80 miles southeast of Madrid). The film’s lovely opening theme for strings and flute, composed by Carlos Vizziello, goes far in setting up a medieval atmosphere; his background music often turns decidedly strange, however, such as those electronic blips and blurps that accompany the first Satanic sacrifice at the ruined abbey.
Befitting a film of this type, traditional set pieces such as a quarterstaff match, a joust and that aforementioned castle banquet (replete with capering jesters) are trotted out, and the gorehounds in the audience should delight in the film’s many scenes of torture (on the rack, with red-hot brands and a red-hot crown, via eye gouging) and mayhem, including a decapitation and any number of sword and knife casualties. The viewer waits patiently for the final showdown between de Lancre and Malebranche — “It could be a great, great spectacle,” de Lancre muses out loud whilst thinking of this impending mano a mano — and when it does come, it does not disappoint. (Still, it cannot compare to the awesome sword fight to be had between Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer in Scaramouche, or between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro…)
de Lancre is a fascinating character, an epileptic who shows remorse for his sins and is plagued by the voices of the many villagers he has slain. But when he goes to a local church to do penance, and kills an accusing monk while en route, the viewer knows that he is truly doomed. And in a finale cleverly lifted from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, that doom really is something to behold!
As for this DVD, from an outfit apparently known as Substance, it gives us a decent-looking print, although nothing wonderful, and backed with lousy dubbing. A bare-bones affair, the only “extras” included are the chapter stops and a list of some of the cast members. Hardly the packed-to-the-gills DVD that Troma offers for the Naschy title The Hanging Woman, but still, well worth investigating. A project obviously close to Naschy’s heart (and he IS terrific in it), Devil’s Possessed is an important addition to this great filmmaker’s oeuvre…