Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Actor Michel Lemoine's turn behind the camera here finds him ploughing territory
similar to that more usually associated with the likes of Jess Franco and, to a lesser
extent, Jean Rollin. The result is a film which was deemed subversive enough to warrant
an outright ban by the French film censor while being judged worthy enough to win the
Silver Medal at the Sitges Festival of Horror Cinema in 1977.
Successful businessman Boris Zaroff (Michel Lemoine) isn't aware that he is the son
of the original Count Zaroff but it seems that the original Count's butler (Howard Vernon)
instructed his own son Karl (Vernon, again) to seek out Zaroff junior and rekindle in
him the family's notorious taste for torture. All is going to plan until the ghost
of a woman who died over 50 years earlier (Joelle Coeur) starts spoiling Boris's
sadistic weekend sojourns to his castle in the country.
Set in present day (1974) France, the basic premise of Seven Women for Satan bears all the
hallmarks of a typical Jess Franco production. A kind of belated sequel to
The Hounds of Zaroff (The Most Dangerous Game), the film is an admittedly inspired but
madly off-kilter excuse to bring 84 uneven minutes of (mostly) cod sadism and insanity
to the silver screen. It's the sort of show that seems to knowingly celebrate its
potential to prompt accusations of both misogynism and just plain silliness in
equal measure: each viewer has to decide for themselves just how seriously
Lemoine would have wanted his public to take the film's content.
Despite the film's low budget, Lemoine is able to muster a number of quite stylish
shots and he does display, for the most part, a reasonably good understanding of
the mechanics of film direction. But while some sequences play particularly
well there are others that are really quite inept by comparison. As with
much of Franco's work, the most memorable moments here are often the ones
where Lemoine fuses surreal and disorientating visuals with particularly
well-selected soundtrack music. The film's soundtrack features some
reasonably good piano/synthesizer/fuzz guitar-led Prog-rock pieces (a
little reminiscent of those used in Rollin's The Shiver of the Vampires),
some reworkings of established classical pieces and some really dreamy
"Euro film muzak" library cues.
Lemoine himself is perfectly cast as the dangerously disturbed Boris Zaroff.
Physically, he's like a cross between the young Malcolm McDowell at his most
petulant and Andrew Robinson's Scorpio from Dirty Harry. And, in his own way,
Zaroff is just as deranged, callous and calculating as Inspector Callahan's
devious quarry. His initial daydream of saddling up his horse and unleashing
his trusty Great Dane to hunt down a naked female through open fields and
woodland is reasonably well executed but it plays like standard, and sometimes
quite silly, exploitation cinema fare: the sequence's good but over-dramatic
Prog-rock soundtrack negates Lemoine's attempts to generate a menacing atmosphere.
But the film's tone does change markedly when Zaroff attacks his first victim,
giving way to a particularly disturbing sequence. The scene unfolds in a
noticeably naturalistic way which serves to distinguish it from both the
carefully choreographed fare presented by Hollywood productions and the
obviously over-the-top offerings served-up by most independent shock-meisters.
It's chilling and unsettling stuff. Good acting plays a part here (something
that can't always be said about some later portions of the film) but the
set-piece as a whole comes across as being too brutal and mean-spirited
in both conception and execution.
The impression is that Lemoine either made the mistake of disposing of his best
actress first or suddenly decided that the rest of the film had to be a
little lighter in tone because we're soon back to the silliness of having
the Great Dane chasing a naked female around Zaroff's castle, etc. The
castle itself (a conical-towered Disney job) and its quite stunning
interiors do bring much to the film. Just like Jean Rollin before him, Lemoine
is able to work some architecturally impressive and opulent looking "found" sets
into his otherwise no-budget feature. Lemoine eventually tries to deflect the
blame for any wrong-doing away from Zaroff by revealing that Karl has been
subliminally influencing his master: a flashback sequence shows Karl's
father (Howard Vernon tucked up in bed and sporting some wild fake
whiskers) instructing Karl to track down Boris and teach him the twisted
philosophies of the house of Zaroff.
Things get even sillier when the proverbial "young couple bedevilled by car-trouble"
show up at Zaroff's castle. Muriel (Nathalie Zeiger) is a typically generic,
reasonably hot-but-dizzy blonde who go-go-cum-disco-dances topless while
getting ready for evening dinner: the dancing stops abruptly when she
spots a body from her bedroom window. But by the time her partner
Francis (Robert Icart), an equally generic, moustachioed, thick-haired,
intellectual know-it-all, has got to the window the body has gone and so
Muriel quite happily starts dancing again. Alas, her morbid fascination
with the castle's torture chamber leads the couple into big trouble.
One interesting aspect of the film that is never fully explained is the appearance
of the ghost of Madam de Boisreyvault. Her visits, which enhance the already
dream-like/hallucinogenic quality of the film's narrative, work really well.
Towards the end they bring to mind Cathy's haunting of Heathcliff in
Wuthering Heights but her actual connection to Zaroff remains obscure. Pete Tombs's
text extra posits Zaroff as a symbol of the new France ("businessmen and corporate
take-overs") who is really lamenting the loss of the romanticism associated with the
France of old (as represented by Madam de Boisreyvault's ghost). It's an interesting
idea but Lemoine himself doesn't have anything half as thoughtful to say about the
film in the disc's interview featurette. Having Zaroff eventually follow de
Boisreyvault to her tomb in a nearby cemetery allows the director to conjure up
some more seemingly Rollin-inspired imagery.
This isn't a great film but it is bound to be of interest to anybody who has a
fondness for Euro-Horror from the Seventies. Presumed to be a permanently
lost title in some quarters, this DVD appears to have been mastered from
one of the few remaining prints in existence: as such it's in less than
pristine shape. It looks like Lemoine originally employed some interesting
colour schemes but the colours here are a little washed out in places and some
outdoor sequences look a little over-exposed or bleached with age. There are
quite a few scratches present too but the picture quality itself remains
reasonably sharp throughout. The English dub-job is clear but not very convincing:
the film plays much better in its native French (supported by optional English
subtitles) but the French track present here isn't quite as vibrant as the English one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Seven Women for Satan rates:
Video: Good -
Sound: Good + (English track), Good - (French track)
Supplements: Interview with Michel Lemoine, trailer, text article about the
film and biographies for Lemoine, Howard Vernon, Joelle Coeur & Bob Wade
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson