OK, this is a weird post, and I’ll ramble a bit.
It all started because there is a new book out called Scarred for Life, a 750 tome about entertainment in the ’70s (specifically in Britain, but we in continental Europe got most of the same, maybe with a one-year delay). The book looks like a lot of fun, as it focuses on all the scary and traumatic TV series, comics, books, toys and movies of that decade.
In case you are interested, you find it on Lulu.com.
As kids, my generation was exposed to pretty scary stuff, without many filters.
We survived, and thrived, and I sometimes blog about those old scares we got.
So I was discussing this book with some friends, and something popped up that cast dread into our old cold hearts: Belphégor!
Now, if you are into fantasy and horror movies, you might recall there was a French action/horror with that title, in 2001, and starring the gorgeous Sophie Marceau1. But actually we were thinking about the TV series, filmed in Paris in 1965, and starring Juliette Greco.
Talk about gorgeous. Ah, the French!
The story in a nutshell: strange doings in the Louvre museum, the guards see a mysterious figure in black roaming the halls at night. Th creature is impervious to bullets and actually kills one of the guardians. The mysterious ghost seems somehow connected with the statue of the god Belphègor (actually Baal-Phagor). A young man and his fiancé investigate the case.
The series was based on a novel by a guy called Arthur Bernède, a turn of the (20th) century author for theater and opera that slummed, so to speak, in the sensationalist popular novels field. He created one of the first European masked avengers, Judex, but he also wrote detective stories about the historical character of Vidoq, a thief turned thief-catcher in Paris in the early 19th century.
He dabbled in crime fiction, a bit of supernatural, espionage, and other popular genres.
Bernède was a smart guy, and in 1919 created with other French writers and directors the Société des Cinéromans, the idea being they would produce and launch the novel and the movie at the same time.
Apparently Belphègor was actually a novelization, and the movie script came first.
It was 1927.
Now the 1965 TV series, in 13 episodes, was scary as hell.
You’ll have to take my word for it, but in case you are curious the whole series can be found on Youtube, in various poor quality copies. It clocks at about 4 hours and a half in total, and there’s also a much shorter version that I think was mounted to be released as a feature movie.
The original plot with a cabal of shady characters looking for a hidden treasure in the Louvre was updated reducing the number of the bad guys, adding a subplot about drugs and lowlifes and making the object of the quest a mysterious alchemical document.
You get an idea of the low-budget but atmospheric black and white show in this sequence of stills with some of the original soundtrack.
In the end, as you can guess from the stills, this is a rationalized horror, and everything has a perfectly mundane explanation. There are some nice surreal bits about it – like the old journalist preserving news clippings in sealed tin cans, and a lot of Parisian color (despite the series being in b/w). But the whole setup is disquieting and really chilly (especially if you are a kid of five or six, as i was when I caught a rerun of this in the early ’70s). It gave us nightmares – it certainly gave them to me2.
Such was the success of the 1965 series that a comic book sequel was done, and in 1966 Cytroen gave the name Belphègor to a lorry. Weird, eh?
When the 2001 movie came out a lot of friends were pretty excited, and not just for Sophie Marceau – but it turned out to be something very different from the original. Maybe we’ll talk about it another time.
In case you are wondering, the Belphègor novel is still in print in French, and in English it is available through Black Coat Press.
- Marceau was a teenage heartthrob in 1980’s coming-of-age-and-necking-movie La Boum, and most of my schoolmates were… ehm, big fans. I must admit I started taking notice of her charms only after she hit 30. ↩
- as a side note, I think I should mention that my parents were given an African sculpture in ebony as a gift by some friends, and it sat in the hallway of our apartment. Nicknamed Belphègor for its vague similarity to the masked creature in the movie, it scared the living daylights out of me. It’s right behind me in this very moment, on the library shelf devoted to Lovecraftian books. ↩