Released on DVD some time ago in Europe by the Belgian Film Archive, director Harry Kumel's (best known for Daughters Of Darkness) truly strange Malpertuis finally receives its due on domestic DVD thanks to Barrel Entertainment in one of their typically impressive definitive editions.
Made shortly after his ode to Sapphic vampires, Malpertuis tells the story of an aging man named Quentin Cassavius (Orson Welles) who, lying on his death bed, decides to have a bizarre group of people arrive at his mansion named, you guessed it, Malpertuis. Cassavius' guests arrive and he tells them that he's split up his vast fortune among them equally, though in order for them to inherit it they must live out the rest of their lives in Malpertuis and the last two to survive must be wed. A rather bizarre dying request, but one that the guests give serious consideration proving that everyone does have their price.
There are two very different versions of the film included on this set. The first is the Cannes Cut which Kumel has disowned. This is the version that was assembled out of his control and which played briefly at the festival and which gave the film its unjustly deserved bad reputation. The second, and longer, version of the film is Kumel's preferred Directors Cut (it's roughly twenty minutes longer) which Kumel re-cut in 2000 after which it played a few festivals before finally landing on home video where it will hopefully become the better known version of the picture.
The differences between the two cuts are quite drastic. While they don't really change the story or the outcome that much, things unfold in a very different manner and in a very different order and the added footage fills in a few interesting details that make for a much more involving experience. It's not that the Cannes Cut is bad - it really isn't - it's just that the Director's Cut has a much more mysterious and effective flow that adds a substantial amount of eeriness to an already bizarre film. The one drawback is that the Director's Cut is in Flemish only, meaning that Welles' instantly recognizable voice is dubbed.
Regardless of which version you prefer, Malpertuis proves to be a very rewarding experience. Blending straight horror with erotic overtones and stylish moments that border on the surreal, Kumel has crafted a rather alien picture that sucks you in and holds you there until the completely twisted ending. Performances are uniformly strong across the board and while the top billed Welles doesn't have a whole lot of screen time her certainly makes an indelible impression in the picture. Susan Hampshire's performance(s) are unique and interesting and the rest of the cast rise to the material as well. Visually the film is gorgeous, using colors and visual symbolism very effectively and framed in a rather painterly method ensuring the movie looks fantastic from start to finish. If the film is a little too heady for some audiences, so be it, but for those who like a little art with their horror, Malpertuis is about as good as it gets.
Both the director's cut of the film and the Cannes cut of the film are presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfers that preserve the film's original aspect ratio. Aside from some really mild print damage in the form of the odd speck or two, and a little bit of grain here and there, the image quality for both versions of the movie is excellent. Color reproduction is dead on, black levels are nice and deep without coming across as too murky, and detail looks great in both the foreground and the background of the image. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts, edge enhancement, or heavy shimmering.
The director's cut of Malpertuis is presented in Flemish while the Cannes cut is presented in English, both tracks in Dolby Digital Mono format with optional English subtitles available for the director's cut of the film.
In terms of audio quality, there's little to complain about here. While the mono tracks aren't going to blow your speakers through the wall there aren't any problems with either of them. A few spots sound a tad flat here and there but that's simply the nature of the beast. Dialogue is always clean and clear and the score sounds quite nice. Levels are properly balanced and there are no issues with any noticeable hiss or distortion to report.
Disc One starts off with an audio commentary from director Harry Kumel moderator by Francoise Levie. This is a pretty interesting talk and Kumel, as you would expect from the driving force behind the picture, has a lot to say about adapting the book, the two different versions of the picture, what went wrong with distribution and what it was like to work with the notoriously temperamental Welles on such an odd project. Levie keeps Kumel talking pretty much throughout, there aren't any prolonged periods of dead air, and this turns out to be a very interesting look at how this film came to be.
Up next is a decent twelve-minute interview entitled One Actress, Three Parts with Susan Hampshire in which the actress discusses her various parts in the production. Her thoughts on interacting with Welles and about spending time on the shoot are interesting as are her observations about the film itself.
Last but certainly not least is Orson Welles Uncut, a great twenty-five minute documentary about the late actor/writer/director in which Kumel and a few of the cast members reminisce about the time they spent with Welles during the period in which Malpertuis was being made. There are some great clips and photographs used here to illustrate various points and it sheds a revealing light on this part of Welle's enigmatic career.
The second disc starts with a featurette entitled Jean Ray - John Flanders which spends roughly seven minutes detailing the life and times of the man who wrote the novel that this film was based on. While Ray isn't nearly as well known to cult movie buffs as Kumel or Welles he's an interesting character in his own right and this short but revealing piece sheds some welcome light on his background and his accomplishments.
From there, fans should definitely enjoy Reflection of Darkness: Del Valle on Kumel, an interesting look at Kumel's entire body of work and his origins and growth as a filmmaker. At almost an hour and fifteen minutes in length, this is a very thorough examination of an unsung hero of cult cinema. While much of the material here covers Kumel's better known pictures - Daughters of Darkness and Malpertuis - a lot of his other work in film and in television is also touched upon and this in-depth examination of his career is a perfect companion piece to the commentary on the first disc.
Rounding out the supplements on the second disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter selection. Also included in this package is a slick sixteen-page book containing essays on the history of the film courtesy of David Del Valle and Ernest Mathijs. The booklet is in full color on nice, heavy paper stock and it also includes some nifty promotional artwork from the film's original theatrical release.
Malpertuis may be bizarre but it's an incredibly well made slice of arthouse-horror that definitely receives its due with this fantastic two-disc set from Barrel. Great quality, killer extras and two versions of a truly involving film make this a mandatory purchase for fans of the picture or cult/horror oddities in general.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.