French Frights: The Big Scare
In the 60s, a mysterious Belgian author began to make headlines in France. This newfound fame led to a young filmmaker adapting his work.
In the early 60s in France, a new writer was put in the limelight. His name was Jean Ray and he had lived a tortuous life. Allegedly. Most French folks at the time may have heard about him thanks to an interview he’d given in the bowels of a torture chamber. According to this piece of television history, the author had once been a bootlegger, sailing across the Rum Row, he had trained spiders, been friend with gangsters, and was of Sioux’s ancestry. The legend of Jean Ray was born.
French Frights : Eden Log
Eden Log is French scifi movie released in 2007, in fact it may very well be the very best scifi film you’ve never…
Depending on which piece of media you’ll stumble upon first, you will learn that Jean Ray was once in the war, that he owned a lion or that he sailed all his life. Those tales suited his publisher, Marabout. In the early 60S, they had accessed to Henry, writer of Bob Morane, Vernes’ demand about re-publishing Jean Ray’s forgotten works. A first collection entitled les 25 Meilleures Histoires Noires et Fantastiques de Jean Ray — Jean Ray’s best black and fantastic stories — had just came out, and the legend of the adventurer writer helped sell a lot. The author was 73 at the time and finally enjoying a success he wished for throughout his entire life. Still, his fame would be short lived, for Jean Ray would leave this world on the 17th of September 1964. Still four years of fame had certainly been better than nothing.
Behind the pseudonym of Jean Ray actually was hidden a certain Raymond Jean Marie de Kremer who lived, no unlike a certain J.R.R. Tolkien, all his life almost in his hometown. Kremer was born 1887 and right after his studies took on an office job in his native town of Gand. This is where the virus of writing engulfed him and it could have gone very well. The young author started with two books who weren’t really a success before he tried himself to the fantastic and the supernatural with Les Contes du Whisky — roughly translated Whisky’s Tales — a collection of short storie he penned under his newfound pseudonym of Jean Ray. This would be the pen name; Kremer would use for everything he wrote and judged literary enough. Alas, Jean Ray loved money too much…
In 1928, Kremer got arrested. See, the Belgian author had conned a few people into giving him money in exchange for buying shares that he didn’t have. But the prices of said stocks went up in just one night and Kremer became unable to ever fulfill his promise. When a first victim took actions against him, a bunch of other people left the woodwork and so Kremer got condemned to spend six years in jail. He would do two, and use this experience to write about the prison system, under an aliases, of course.
When he got out, friends had left him, his wife had left him and his second book under the Jean Ray’s penname became both a critical and a financial failure. Kremer went on and began to write a lot, under a bunch of different pseudonyms for neither Kremer nor Ray were welcome anymore. This is around that times that he began to use his second most famous aliases John Flanders which he used mostly when writing in Flemish. Kremer also took on translating the adventures of Harry Dickson, but thinking those were too poor, the Belgian writer began to rewrite the tales he was supposed to translate while using their covers as inspiration.
World War II came along, being antisemitic and because French writers couldn’t sell their books to occupied Belgium, Kremer found a new success. Under the Jean Ray alias he produced collections of short stories such as Le Grand Nocturne, Les Cercles de l’Epouvante and les Derniers Contes de Canterbury, as well as two novels Malpertuis — on which I will certainly write in a near future — and the book which interest us presently La Cité de l’Indicible Peur. Sadly, this success wasalso short-lived. See, having been able to publish under the Occupation was seem as a form of collaboration once the war ended. In case you didn’t know, France’s, at the time, most famous superhero The Nyctalope disappeared because of the books its author published throughout the Occupation in which the nightseeing inspector helped the Nazi occupants.
This explain the dry season Jean Ray would have to live through, getting back to pseudonyms and moving into his daughter’s basement for the rest of his life. That’s is until Henry Vernes forced Marabout to publish his short stories, until he was able to come back in the spotlight. Scholars says, Kremer throughout his life wrote as far as 13000 pieces. Be it fiction, non-fiction, comic-book scripts…
During this new high season, Kremer met a young filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Mocky, who wanted to turn La Cité de l’Indicible Peur into a movie. At this time, Alain Resnais was also taking of adapting Jean Ray’s work. Kremer would never live to see any of those projects coms to life. Resnais would not fulfil his promise. Mocky would finally release The Big Scare, and Harry Kümel would in 1971 direct an adaptation of Malpertuis starring Orson Wells.
When talking about the history of French film industry, Jean-Pierre Mocky is kind of speical. It’s not only that he consistently directed movies from the 60s to 2017. It’s not only that he was a freelancer, a daredevil, a jackass. Mocky was god-tier, to use a gamer-term.
As a gaffer, I knew about him before I even saw one of his movies. You see, in 2000, Mocky who was kind of a blue-collared director, appeared in a Belgian tv show called Strip-tease. Strip-Tease is like the grandmother of all reality-tv shows. Most of the times, its film crew would follow eccentric people in their everyday lives but once, they went on the movie set of one of Mocky’s production.
I can assure one and only one thing, this particular episode has been witnessed by every film crew membes you could find in France. I mean it’s practically impossible to go through one complete film shoot before hearing at least once, Mocky’s most famous cry : But where is this fucking boom operator?! yelled by someone at the top of their lungs. See, the episode shocked everyon because all throughout it, Mocky and his director of photography just yelled at one another until the filmmaker start to freak out because of the rain and begins to yell at the boom operator as if he was the one making everyone late. In other words: Mocky is legendary.
Mocky started his career as an actor, before becoming an assisant director for some Italian filmmakers and coming back in France to try and make his own movies, some of which he would star in. Mocky was the kind of guy who tried to do everything by himself even if it meant being out of the loop, going as far as buying his own theatres to ensure some distribution scheme for the movies he’d produced. Legend has it, Le Brady, his own cinema, was the last Parisian theatre in which you would go, pay only one ticket and stay throughout the day as used to be the case in the 50s and 60s. I know a lot of people who told me they actually met Mocky in the entrails of the Brady and that he woudl discuss the secret of making his film with them, or share his deep knowledge of cinema history in general.
In 1962, Raymond Queneau convinces Jean-Pierre Mocky to adapt one of Jean Ray’s famous work, La Cité de l’Indicible Peur — The Town of Unspeakable Fear. See, at the time, mocky was kinda depressed and had this weird feeling that he had already done it all. That’s when Queneau, a screenwriter, told him he should try and do a fantastic movie, for at the time there existe a genuine legacy of French fantastic films, movies such as l’Assassinat du Père Noël. Mocky agreed but the writer had a plan, he’d recently read the newly re-published novel La Cité de l’Indicible Peur, written by Jean Ray. Queneau thought this was worth being adapted.
For this, Mocky hired Bourvil, with whom he has already worked and who was one of the most famous comedians of his time. Still, Jean Ray’s novel appeared hard to adapt, it told the tale of a cop moving in to a small town and his simple presence made every inhabitants reveal their dark past. See, while writing this book, Kremer used the image of his native town of Gand and transposed it onto a Scottish little village. Still, La Cité de l’Indicible Peur was really Kremer settling his score with the small bourgeoisie of his hometown, people he’d known all his life. It is through stories, told by an eerie old man that every crime ever committed in the town finally gets resolved.
To adapt the story, Queneau said Mocky should put it in France, to reduce the budget, in a country where there had been sorcerer and witches. Both men agreed on the Cantal, a small department in the middle of France. The town of Ingersham had to be renamed Barge and Mocky and Queneau turned the sympathetic and retired Scotland Yard officer into a happy-go-lucky cop who wanted to prevent a counterfeiter to commit another crime. This simply in order to prevent the criminal from getting a death sentence. Musing around the town, he inadvertently stumbles upon everyone’s secret, from money counterfeiting to murder, while also discovering what hides underneath the Bargeasque, a monster which seems to be terrorizing the townsfolks.
The shooting took place from the 13th of April to the 29th of May in the small town of Salers, which is quick for a French production, but not at all uncommon for Mocky’s projects, still, it surely enabled Kremer to know at least one of his novel was being turned into a movie… Sadly, Bourvil who was one of the producers, retitled the piece The Big Scare and alongside the production company asked for cuts and reshoots which Mocky did not agree with. The movie then released as a critical and financial failure, straining Queneau and Bourvil’s relationship with Mocky forever. Still, the little unknown town of Salers would long recall the production, having a screening for its 30th birthday.
In 1972, Mocky bought back the rights to his own film from its parent company. With the help of Arte, a French/German public channel, the director was able to show his director’s cut, thanks to the preservation of the first negatives which had not been destroyed. It is this version which can be found on YouTube and is now titled: La Cité de l’Indicible Peur, just like the book,as Mocky originally intended.
Mocky would pass away on the 8th of August 2019, he was preparing both a movie on Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, and another one on the Yellow Vest Movement. Imdb gives him 82 credits as a director.
On a last note, while the whole Bargeasque side-story may appear weird to outsiders, the tale of a catholic saint having to vainquish a monster in order to save or create a village is actually pretty common in France. Tudgual, who is considered one of the founding fathers of Brittany, is supposed to have fought a dragon in Treguier before he was able to build the abbey which made him famous. The town of Rouen appears to also have been the victim of high-flying, fire-breathing dragon which was killed by the town’s protector, Saint-Romain with the help of a condemned man.
See those myths are really widespread in France, even though some may have been lost to time. The Bargeasque takes its name from one of the more famous monster of French folklore, namely the Tarasque. A creature part lion, part turtle, part bear, part scorpion which haunted the south of France. Sainte-Marthe, alarmed by such a beast and the suffering of its fellow townsfolks decided to fight the creature, made a cross sign, threw holy water on it, and the Tarasque, being a devilish envoy, was immobilized and subsequently killed by the inhabitants of the town nearby who took on the name Tarascon as a form of celebration.
Watching the movie we can see that the Bargeasque costume design takes this approach of dinosaur-type of monster. But on the painting shown throughout the movie, the Bargeasque actually looks more like a wolf. A simple explanation can be given. The Big Scare was shot in a department called Cantal which was heavily hit by the famous Beast of Gevaudan. The Beast was a bigger than life wolf who allegedly killed as far as 400 persons according to certain sources. Famous French movies have been made about it and I may address this in a future French Frights. Still, The Beast of Gevaudan may be the most famous creature of the whole French folklore and it has always been represented as a single wolf. It’s not such a wild guess to hint that visual representation of the Bargeasque throughout the movie are in fact tapestry representing the Beast fighting with Jeanne. This precise tales, which is widely circulated in the Beast territory states that the monster which could not be killed by a hundred men was once repelled by a single young woman named Jeanne. Folk songs have been written about this event and the fantasy of an underdog taking on a larger-than-life abomination still gets people’s imagination riled up.
And isn’t this what the Big Scare was all about in the first place?
Ouch, we went old school on this one but I hope you liked the wayback machine enough to be interested by older episodes of French Frights. We took on cyberpunk with Renaissance, Heavy-metal scifi with Dante 01 and we already talked about the best scifi movie you never watched Eden Log.