Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
European horror was a major part of the first wave of DVD in the late 1990s. While the big studios held back on desirable collector titles, small boutique outfits stepped in to fill the breach with sexy, gory continental horror films, many of which had never seen a U.S. release. As a result, the horror genre is by far the most fully represented on DVD.
But some famous titles have yet to surface. Roger Vadim's Et mourir de plaisir (Blood and Roses) is tied up with Paramount, preventing us from seeing a legendary uncut version. Several classic Barbara Steele pictures are absent because, presumably, rights holders have set prohibitive asking prices. Yet surprises do surface from time to time. The hot horror discovery this summer could be Harry Kümel's weird Malpertuis, an eerie, dreamlike chiller from 1971. Kümel chose to follow up his successful vampire tale Le rouge aux lèvres (Daughters of Darkness) by going against the low budget trend and instead turning out a handsomely appointed macabre fantasy with horror overtones, enacted by a top-rank cast. Although the story boils down to a haunted house tale, the core premise is unique.
Sailor Jan (Matthieu Carrière of Young Törless) is tricked into entering the strange house and gardens of Malpertuis (Mahl-pear-twee), where a strange collection of bourgeois neurotics and borderline madmen await the death of their patron, the bedridden Cassavius (Orson Welles). Jan's sister Nancy (Susan Hampshire) wants to leave Malpertuis as soon as possible but the manipulative Cassavius tempts Jan to stay, become his direct heir and perhaps marry the redheaded, enigmatic Euryale (Hampshire in a second role). At Cassavius' passing the will is read. The inhabitants of Malpertuis will receive large sums in gold, but only if they remain within the walls of the house. Nancy elects to leave with her lover Mathias (Daniel Pilon) but her plans come to a violent end. Jan is seduced by Alice (Hampshire again), one of three malicious sisters. He loses favor with Euryale, and cannot make her look at him. Meanwhile, other residents continue their weird behaviors. Cassavius' henchman Dideloo (Michel Bouquet of The Bride Wore Black) feverishly counts his money. Mad taxidermist Philarette (Charles Jannssens) babbles about stuffing all of the others, one by one. Lampernisse (Jean-Pierre Cassell of Army of Shadows and Oh! What a Lovely War) lives in rags under the stairwell and wails that the gaslights will be extinguished or stolen. At one point Jan escapes the haunted Malpertuis, but has he really?
Malpertuis is certainly a different horror film, fast moving, richly colored and brightly lit. Cinematographer Gerry Fisher often picked odd assignments (Accident, Sebastian, Ned Kelly, The Offence) and his visuals rival the slick giallos that would soon be coming from Italy. Director Kümel tells his story clearly enough but never quite settles on a satisfactory tone. The intriguing mystery isn't resolved in a dramatic fashion, which is probably why the expensive film didn't get a great deal of play. The producers' first release version was trimmed by almost twenty minutes; it probably sacrificed the story's clarity as well.
Malpertuis is carefully constructed to invite psychological interpretation. Hints abound that Malpertuis might merely be a manifestation of Jan's disturbed mind, a la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The characters are fully formed eccentric personalities; some seem reasonably normal and others exist in a remote daze. Why won't Euryale look directly at Jan? Jan's old family home by the canal has mysteriously disappeared, and a family he meets briefly in the street mirrors his own lost family. Because his two lovers so closely resemble his sister, Jan's hallucinations have a suggestion of incest. Editing and art direction give the odd house the feeling of a haunted maze with weird attic rooms. Jan sets out to catch vermin in the attic, and later finds a strange piece of human flesh in the trap. Does the house itself eat people?
The film's drawbacks are few, but crucial. Matthieu Carrière's Jan is appropriately dreamy and unfocused, but he's also too passive to win our sympathy. We don't identify with him. When Jan 'betrays' Euryale to bed the promiscuous Alice, hopes for a romantic solution fall apart. Although it never feels slow, the film's excessive length eventually wears down our patience. Malpertuis' odd tone avoids Kafka-esque clichés but never quite establishes one of its own, especially in the time-and-space warping finale.
Our strongest memories are of individual images: the raucous red light district and the prostitute Bets (Sylvie Vartan), the fair-haired Jan awaking in a strange room that seems to have adjusted to fit his personality, almost anything with Hampshire's Euryale. Her red hair, blue eyes and superb makeup job create a character simultaneously attractive and sinister. Orson Welles was at this time performing for every producer who could pay his price, even Bert I. Gordon. Welles' intimidating Cassavius makes a strong impression even with his self-applied and overly theatrical makeup.
Only viewers keenly acquainted with classic literature will be able to guess the truth of what's really going on in this enigmatic show. It's possible that Malpertuis helped inspire Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil. Both films start with a disoriented innocent chasing an elusive figure through a maze of Old World streets. Each becomes a virtual prisoner of a perverse household of sin, murder and madness. Both stories end with an existential riddle. Bava's picture had an even worse fate.
Barrel Entertainment's DVD of Malpertuis presents this rare film in two versions. Disc one has Harry Kümel's 119-min. Director's Cut, a restoration given a fine video and audio polish. The language is Dutch, with removable English subs. Georges Delerue's mysterious music score is a solid asset.
Françoise Levie oversees some good video extras. Director Kümel provides a full commentary, pointing out modern details peeking through the backgrounds and honestly assessing what did and didn't work in the filming. He explains how Susan Hampshire was given three distinct 'looks' mostly through makeup, and he laments some fairy-tale elements that he was unable to carry through, like a disappearing entrance to the haunted house. Orson Welles Uncut unspools a collection of raw Welles takes while Kümel's remembers his frustration on the set. Orson was nothing but trouble, starting late, finishing early and directing his shots through bluff and bullying. Then, when his contracted three days were up, Welles apologized for causing so much havoc and helped Kümel wrap up pages of uncompleted material in a single morning!
Susan Hampshire appears in One Actress, Three Parts, discussing the difficulties of jumping between roles and complimenting her makeup artist. She admits to having difficulty being sufficiently 'sensual' for the black-clad Alice character. Her blue eyes as Euryale were painful hard-glass contact lenses.
Disc two has what the producers call the Cannes '72 Version, a good transfer of a rougher element. It's in English, which gives Orson back his proper voice but flattens out most of the rest of the characters; why can't anybody make proper multi-language versions, with everyone speaking in their appropriate tongue? A crude replacement title sequence has been added, and a number of scenes were simply dropped to bring the show down to 100 minutes. This second disc has a long (74 min.) Kümel interview conducted by David Del Valle at the American Cinematheque in 2005. It's rough in spots -- Kümel starts by saying that he made only 3 fantastic films -- but allows the director to bring up subjects not covered in the commentary. Jean Ray / John Flanders is a short (7 min.) featurette adapted from an earlier B&W television piece on the Belgian author of Malpertuis, who explains his odd upbringing as if relating a horror tale.
The package finishes off with a trailer and a glossy insert booklet featuring short essays by David Del Valle and Ernest Mathijs. Overall, this is a fine presentation of a truly rare fantastic film. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Two feature versions; Director Commentary, featurettes on Orson Welles, Susan Hampshire and Jean Ray; director interview by David Del Valle, trailer, insert booklet
Packaging: Two discs in Double Keep case
Reviewed: July 3, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. Note from Meredith Usher, 7.17.07: Dear Glenn, I have been a Malpertuis buff for almost 20 years when my film professor showed us his rare U.K. VHS of the Cannes version. Since then I have waited to see it again in an optimal transfer. I even own a rare 1998 English translation of the novel published by Atlas Press. Last year though, I hit the cinematic jackpot with the PAL Region 0 DVD release. It contains all of the bonus features on the U.S. DVD (save the Del Valle interview), but this 2-DVD set also includes a 37min documentary about the making-of, the Cannes Trailer, a 4 min short with Kumel as he visits the film's locations, Aether (1960) a 7 min short film by Kumel, and The Warden of the Tomb (1965), a TV drama directed by Kumel based on Kafka presented without subtitles. The packaging is superb with a nice booklet (no English text) and some period reviews (some English) reproduced on the back of the outer sleeve. Just thought you might want to know that for Malpertuis fans there is more to get their hands on. Sincerely, M. Usher Toronto, Ontario.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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