Originally banned in it’s native country of Poland for upsetting the Catholic Church with it’s wanton violence and sexuality, Diabel is a bombastic surreal horror film with seemingly limitless energy, style, and audacity. Diabel could very well be one of the most spectacular and powerful European horror films to end up this under the radar.
It is about Jacob, a nobleman executed for a treasonous plot who is given a second chance at life when he makes a bargain with Satan. Little does he know that the bargain involves him being compelled to murder nearly everyone who he comes across. Can Jacob get out of his deal with Satan while trying to save his lady love from marrying his sworn enemy, figure out who killed his father, reuniting with his mother, and avoid getting killed for a second time in a country caught amidst full scale war?
Like most of Zulawski’s films, Diabel makes for a visually excellent film. Cinematography is marked with a heavy blue and grey look, as if the movie was filmed underwater. Shadows and natural lighting are used extensively to create a world of mystery and intrigue. The camera sweeps and glides in a manner so effortlessly that it’s hard to believe that it was done before Steadicam was invented. Even the sets are extraordinary. Most likely using abandoned castles and mansions, the scenery is massive and gothic. Through sprucing up worn out structures, Zulawski has created an authentic 18th century environment that looks truly impressive. We get a truly extravagant looking film that resembles what silent film era expressionism and horror would look like when crossed with 70s era psychdelica.
The score of the film consists of loud, thumping guitar licks. Aiming less for period accurate music and leaning towards a Jimi Hendrix Experience meets Goblin sound. The editing of the visuals to the music is handled so well that I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t improvised as it was taking place.
As anyone who has seen the director’s later work (Possession) would tell you, the acting is completely bonkers. Almost every scene is a cacophony of hysterical screaming that viewers will end up loving or hating. Zulawski captures unrestrained madness and insanity like few other directors are able to. The film is able to balance itself somewhat with quiet scenes of mourning and tragedy, but it’s mostly giving the audience preparing for the next bout of rabid behavior.
The characters remain strong, with just about everyone holding their weight of the story. Jacob is a fascinating protagonist, as he goes from an honest man looking for answers to an insatiable serial killer almost every other minute.You will spend the entire film fearing for his life or cheering for his demise.The other central character is an unnamed pale man in a dark cloak who we are to assume is meant to be Satan. He gives Jacob back his life, but he also demands a steady body count in return.
There is also Jacob’s fiancée who has left him for a former friend that has become a wealthy aristocrat. It’s treated like a betrayal, even though it only occurred because Jacob died. Things get worse when Jacob’s fiancée sends mixed signals to both men and the wealthy friend starts a manhunt to end Jacob’s killing. These moments don’t really add much to the story aside from heightening the already decadent atmosphere.
Diabel is an exhilarating high concept slasher film about the mania of a populace when a country is on the brink of annihilation. It is one of the great underseen horror offerings of it’s time.