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THE COMPANIONS OF BAAL [Les Compagnons de Baal] (1968; Video Screams).

Overstuffed with mystery, atmosphere and menace, this insanely entertaining seven-episode French mini-series from director Pierre Prévert (younger brother of CHILDREN OF PARADISE screenwriter Jacques Prévert) spans 6-1/2 hours and revolves around an intrepid reporter, a damsel in distress, plus a diabolical secret society which worships Baal (the three-headed demon who rules the eastern part of Hell) and has infiltrated the highest positions of government and the police. A delightful throwback to popular, early 20th-century fantasy-crime creations like Fantomas, Arsène Lupin and Belphegor, it's no surprise that this project feels heavily inspired by the silent-era films of director Louis Feuillade, since it was written by and stars Jacques Campreux, Feuillade's grandson, who also scripted Georges Franju's JUDEX and SHADOWMAN. In its first chapter, "Le Secret of Diogene," we're introduced to Claude Leroy (Campreux), a reporter for the France-Midi newspaper whose love for fantastic stories comes in handy when he's drawn into a crazy adventure involving an ancient organization of thieves and assassins known as The Companions of Baal. After his paper's top journalist mysteriously dies while looking into a decade-old armored car robbery and missing fortune in gold,Claude takes over the assignment. Meanwhile, Claire Nadeau plays lovely secretary Françoise Cordier. When her car breaks down in the middle of the night, she accidentally stumbles upon a group of oddly-masked grave robbers and fears for her life. Fate brings these two together, with nosy Claude believing the distraught beauty's wild tale, while uncovering a link to the lost gold. But that's only the opening round in Claude's clashes with the nefarious Companions of Baal -- founded in the 16th-century by Nostrodamus, but now centered around crime, evil and the occult -- with the storylines becoming even weirder as these shadowy creeps slip into flowing robes and ornate Mardi Gras masks for their candelabra-lit underground-catacomb meetings! As the Master (Jean Martin, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS) becomes increasingly pissed off by Claude and Françoise's interference with his plans for world domination, our heroes face shoot-outs, high speed chases, deadly snakes, being buried alive, and experimental "laser trephine" brain surgery. Of course, It's easy for a criminal conspiracy to thrive when the clueless police allow a prime suspect to escape under their noses during a lunch break, so thank goodness for heroic Gallic journalists unafraid of risking their lives in the pursuit of the truth!... Each chapter has its own serial-style title (e.g., "The Red Ghost," "Night of the Eight of Clubs") and the script piles one bizarre subplot, perilous situation or wild set piece onto another. There's a kitschy carnival spook-house slaying. A competing alliance of crooks gets tired of giving Baal a cut of their profits, only to quickly regret their decision. And who exactly is that insane young woman (Martine Redon) kept by the Master? Martin is delightfully over-the-top as this power-mad fiend, who dumps anyone that disappoints him into a handy bottomless pit and uses his (rather dubious) mastery of disguise to pose as a renowned herpetologist or leader of a religious cult involving deceased house pets. French stand-up comic Popeck is effectively menacing as the Master's ruthless sidekick, while René Dary (who also appeared in the 1965 French mini-series BELPHEGOR) plays a police chief. Mixing classic elements (traveling through the sewers, hidden passageways, a spiked-wall booby trap) with the modern (the Master uses a '60s-supervillain-style computerized surveillance/communication system), and laced with pulpy thrills and offbeat humor, BAAL is an absolute blast.

© 2017 by Steven Puchalski.