Color, 1972, 119m./100m.
Directed by Harry Kümel
Starring Orson Welles, Susan Hampshire, Mathieu Carrière, Michel Bouquet, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Daniel Pilon, Sylvie Vartan
Barrel (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
One of the most mysterious art-horror films ever made, Malpertuis seemed like a sure thing during its creation in the early 1970s. Flemish director Harry Kümel was fresh off the international success of his dazzling Daughters of Darkness, and an eye-popping international cast headlined by Orson Welles promised plenty of marquee value. Unfortunately the finished product seemed even more cursed than the titular house, as the dream-like and often inscrutable film met with a baffled reaction at Cannes (in a cut the director disavowed) and quickly sank into oblivion. However, students of both horror and arthouse cinema continued mentioning the film over the next few decades, though few actually had the chance to see it; finally a restored director's cut was assembled through European funding in the early 2000s and, thanks to repertory screenings, finally restored the reputation of this long-lost Eurocult curio.
Returning from years at sea to the seaside village of his childhood, blond sailor Jan (Carrière) finds his old home disappeared and the town populated by eccentrics, one of whom, the giggling Dideloo (Bouquet), follows his every step. At a nearby tavern, he becomes involved in a brawl and is knocked unconscious, only to awake weeks later at Malpertuis, an "evil house" which now serves as the home for his sister, Nancy (former Disney girl Hampshire), as well as his dying patriarch uncle, Cassavius (Welles). All the other residents, a gaggle of oddballs ranging from three prim, knitting sisters to a bearded stranger chained in the basement, eagerly await Cassavius' death so they can hear the reading of his will and finally escape the house than contains them, but Jan soon finds his own fate bound with everyone else in the house as the sinister old man's inheritance carries repercussions far more horrific and bizarre than anyone could imagine.
Most reviews of Malpertuis casually reveal the truly bizarre third-act revelation which explains the true nature of the house and its inhabitants, which is a shame since this is a film best experienced with as little preparation as possible. The unique atmosphere is unlike any other film ever made, veering from humorous fantasy to delicate eroticism to all-out monstrous horror, sometimes all within the same scene. Though his screen time adds up to only a few minutes, Welles makes a strong impression in his key role, while Hampshire shines in three very different roles (or is it more?) as the pure Nancy, the unearthly red-haired Euryale (who won't look anyone directly in the eye), and one of the prudish sisters. Cinematographer Gerry Fisher (who lensed the great See No Evil the same year) helps the director conjure up a wondrous palette of colors throughout the film, from the blood-red tavern interior to the weird purple, blue and oak-wood hues of Malpertuis, while composer Georges Delerue contributes a wonderful score with a beautifully romantic main theme.
Since it was shot in English (with some actors like Carrière and Bouquet looped by other actors to replace their accents), Malpertuis was first shown that way at Cannes in a 100-minute edition which opens with Magritte paintings beneath the opening titles. The version was apparently prepared in haste, which might explain the fairly straightforward scene editing and the frequent fades to black which close most of the major scenes. However, it's still an enjoyable experience and offers the wonderful opportunity to hear Welles and Hampshire voicing their own roles. This version was later hacked down by as much as ten minutes in various territories, where it was sometimes shown as The Legend of Doom House. When Kümel finally assembled his own cut of the film (running just shy of two hours), he drastically altered the entire editing scheme of the film, which still follows the same basic sequence of events but unfolds in an entirely different manner. For example, the woodcut main titles are new (with different music), Jan's entrance is presented differently (without mystical overtones), the memorable tavern song by fetching French chanteuse Sylvie Vartan (aunt of Alias' Michael Vartan) is chopped up very differently, and Jan's fate when he looks Euryale in the eyes is conveyed only through sound rather than the literal imagery of the Cannes cut. Honestly, both versions are worth watching, and in the end it's hard to say which one is preferable, as both have their virtues and faults while offering quite a bit of alternate and exclusive footage; the director's cut is definitely slower and dreamier, while the Cannes version is a more traditional Euro-horror experience. Both versions aren't perfect, particularly since the film chooses to end with one "gotcha!" moment too many that throws many viewers for a loop; still, it's a magnificent achievement and certainly a film whose allure hasn't diminished one bit over the years. The director and subject matter have often landed this one strictly in the horror category, though it's more correctly described as a dark gothic fantasy along the same lines as Mario Bava's near-simultaneous Lisa and the Devil, with which is shares a similar air of enchanted decrepitude as well as a nearly identical narrative structure; just check out the opening and closing 15 minutes of each, and the parallels are unmistakable.
The restoration of Malpertuis first appeared on DVD in Europe courtesy of the Royal Belgian Film Archive (who funded the project in the first place), along with a host of extras. The same materials were used to assemble the American release from Barrel, though their transfer of the long cut, while taken from the same hi-def master, appears quite a bit sharper and more colorful. The mono soundtrack sounds fine, accompanied by optional English subtitles. The English Cannes cut on disc two looks quite a bit more worn, unfortunately, and some minor vertical croppigng on the credits indicates the image could be slightly zoomed in. In any case, the director's cut -- which most people will rush to first anyway -- is a fantastic presentation and more stunning than the theatrical prints currently in circulation. The Barrel disc also adds on additional material for its release, making this about as comprehensive a release as one could imagine. Kümel appears several times, first with a full audio commentary for the director's cut in which the discusses the source novel, the filming, the casting, the sad release history, and the intricate symbolism. It's a fascinating and fast-paced chat that barley misses a beat throughout the entire running time. Then he appears on-camera on disc two for "Reflections of Darkness," a lengthy 74-minute video chat with David Del Valle about his entire career of fantastic cinema (making this a fine companion for the special edition of Daughters of Darkness). He also appears in small snippets in two other featurettes, "Orson Welles Uncut" (a 25-minute look at his participation in the film including numerous photos and film outtakes) and "One Actress, Three Parts," a new featurette with Hampshire talking about her role in the film and her approach to the character(s). Other extras include a 7-minute short about the novel's author entitled "Jean Ray / John Flanders," a welcome intro to someone still virtually unknown outside Europe, as well as the original Engligh language theatrical trailer. The two-disc set comes packaged with a booklet containing liner notes by Del Valle and a lengthy history of the film by Ernest Mathijs.