Le diable est parmi nous (a/k/a The Possession of Victoria and Satan’s Sabbath)
Written by John Dunning and André Link
Directed by Jean Beaudin
Le diable est parmi nous (also known as The Possession of Virginia and Satan’s Sabbath) continues the Fantasia International Film Festival’s foray into the dark, sleazy recesses on Quebec’s cinematic past. This, like the previously-covered Pouvoir intime, is another homegrown genre effort that hasn’t seen the light of day on home video since the VHS era. The 35mm copy shown at the festival is the only complete extant print, and was loaned from the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. As such, the screened version is in as good a shape as you could expect an archival print to be. The film itself, meanwhile, is remarkably messier, pitched somewhere between a Parallax View-esque conspiracy thriller and an occult-themed sexploitation film, but is nowhere as tense or as wild as that premise makes it sound.
The film stars a perpetually-scowling Daniel Pilon as Paul Drouin, a journalist whose friend commits suicide under questionable circumstances. He decides to investigate the death himself, leading to a few startling discoveries: some runic blood smears and a little old lady who shows up in every picture Paul took of the crime scene. As he starts putting some theories together, he narrowly evades getting poisoned twice, his dead friend’s girlfriend gets kidnapped and is later found dead herself, and the old lady from the pictures keeps showing up wherever he goes. There can be only one logical conclusion to this mysterious series of events: a bloodthirsty Satanist suicide cult out out to kill Paul because he knows too much. Or is it all in his head? Well, turns out it isn’t, and the screenplay never makes a good case for Paul being off his rocker, which defuses a bit of the tension. The reason paranoid thrillers work is because there’s always the off chance that there isn’t a massive conspiracy trying to cover something up. Paranoid thrillers involve elaborate gaslighting schemes on some level, while here, Paul just kind of makes a few good guesses. It’s not paranoia if there’s never really a chance that the person in question might be wrong.
Between its plot contrivances, rug-pull ending, mystery-story construction, and downright strange scoring choices, Le diable est parmi nous feels like the closest thing Quebec ever produced to a giallo picture. But the film is too rough around to edges to earn that particular title. The camerawork is mostly perfunctory, lacking the eccentricity or spark of their continental counterparts. The editing is ragged, with shots often being held for several beats too long for seemingly no other reason than to pad out the running time. The performances are mostly flat and affectless; both Pilon and Liza Minnelli lookalike Louise Marleau go for dour and troubled, but just comes off as bored and slightly drunk. At no point does Le diable est parmi nous threaten to gel into a cohesive whole, but its strangely-placed connective tissue gives it an eerie energy in its hallucinatory final third. It’s at this point that the film starts to harness its shapelessness to create a moody, surreal atmosphere, which is especially present during the infamous black mass sequence. The scene, too short but by far the best in the film, begins with a strange ritualistic entrance in a white room and ends with a brief psychedelic Satanic orgy. The film stays trippy and bizarre right until the end, including a truly strange pre-credits series of title cards rattling off the number of unsolved deaths in a randomly-chosen list of cities. And then a Diane Dufresne jam serenades us into the credits. It’s a suitably weird way to end an equally weird movie.
Even if it’s built on a rickety foundation, the film has the saving grace of excellent location photography and effectively grimy cinematography. The interior scenes are shot unevenly, but once outside, DPs Denis Gingras and René Verzier shine. If anything, though, Le diable est parmi nous offers not only a fascinating glimpse of the past through its text, but it’s invaluable as a document of Montreal circa 1972. The streets, the parties, the music, the decor; it’s all there. What isn’t there is a streamlined film, or even an entertainingly un-streamlined one. But if you really must see an occult-themed early-70s murder-mystery set in Montreal, you’re better off watching Harvey Hart’s superior private-dick story The Pyx. The difference can between both films can be summed up with their opening credits sequences. In The Pyx, Karen Black sings a haunting folk tune over an elegiac helicopter shot of Mount Royal; in Le diable est parmi nous, they strap a camera behind an ambulance’s rotating light, thus blocking the view, and proceed to drive the long way to the location of a poorly-telegraphed suicide.