The oldest and most respected stories known to humankind, supernatural horror tales have also ran the risk of being the most cliché and, at times, the most conservative. Although horrific fantasies in film and fiction are quick to trot out their phantoms, monsters, and assorted madmen -- all of which act contrary to societal rules -- many of these traditional fables are just as quick to return rule to the status quo, careful to reaffirm the societal niceties of the 'moral' majority. This unfortunate habit, draining immediacy and strength from the genre, can be traced to the very manner in which horror cinema approaches the nature of reality and supernatural. In most cases, the filmmakers are quick to first establish a firm context of realism and everyday values, introducing the supernatural as a contradiction to the norm -- an unwholesome refutation of taste, logic, and goodness -- that gradually slips into or attacks the 'good fabric.' The other approach to the supernatural, and by far the more intellectual and emotionally disturbing one -- treats the occult as a very real (if hidden) aspect of everyday existence. Films that follow the formula of this later approach are more frightening and pertinent to the individual and culture in general because they not only attack our beloved perceptions about reality but, more importantly, reveal that the terrifying and magical are organic to our everyday lives. Malpertuis (The Legend Of Doom House), achieves this goal with style, philosophical illogic, and a sense of fatalism.
As Jan (Matthieu Carrière), a sailor, arrives on dry land, he is abducted. Regaining consciousness in the isolated mansion of Malpertuis, he soon discovers that he is not alone. His sister Nancy (Susan Hampshire) and a motley group of distant and petty relatives have been brought there as well, summoned by his dying uncle Quentin Cassavius (Orson Welles). Cassavius will leave to his heirs each an equal portion of his considerable wealth . . . So long as they all stay within Malpertuis, for the remainder of their lives (with it understood that the last surviving couple will marry). Discovering that they are trapped in the elegantly decrepit mansion, Jan struggles to decipher his uncle's strange behaviour, the dreadful secrets of the structure, and the nature of existence. Those who attempt escape are doomed as the shadow of death lowers like a net around Jan and his sister. Based (rather faithfully) on the little known fantasy novel by Belgian author Jean Ray, Malpertuis defies simple analysis or understanding. As such, it is that much more terrifying.
A film by Harry Kumel, Malpertuis is more than a worthy follow up to Daughters of Darkness. It is a revelation . . . a challenge to the mind. A frighteningly hallucinogenic symbiosis of surrealistic nature and skewered personality, this is perhaps one of the most artful renderings of the shadow lands between reality and fantasy ever produced. At once both a ghost story and an examination of human relationships with each other and time itself, this is gothic horror baptized in the philosophical rigor of a dark and dreaming intellect. Life is depicted as an unfathomable nightmare of lust, hatred, and confusion. This fable is so very existential in its themes and imagery that it stands alongside such classic pieces of dark surrealism as Waiting for Godot and The Ghost Sonata. Neither a straight ghost story or drama, Malpertuis mirrors the impossibilities of the otherworld by examining the absurdities of the everyday. It becomes impossible to decide where illusion stops and 'real' life begins. Characters on the borderland of dreams -- trapped in webs of personal deceit and hunger -- are betrayed by their own doomed dependence on their physical senses. Because there is no one truth, life is revealed to be but a shadows of other shadows. We are left in a world without concise definition -- a world without clearly defined parameters. Nothing is scarier that that.
Barrel Entertainment outdoes itself with this release, presenting Kümel's surrealist masterpiece in two distinct versions. First we have the English-language edit that premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. While this was the first edition of the movie to ever been seen by the public, and haunting in its own right, the crowning achievement in this package is the newly restored Dutch-language director's cut. Re-edited to 119 minutes (as intended by Kümel), this impressive masterwork in subversion is complete and uncut for the first time ever, in a new high definition transfer. Disc One features Malpertuis: Director's Cut (1973). Running at 119 minutes, this presentation as well as the 'Cannes Version' (100 Min)are near flawless, lacking any significant grain or print damage to distract from the cold beauty of the story. The Audio track for the 'Directors Cut' features Dutch language with removable English subtitles. The audio is crisp and lacks any irritating background noise.
The extras are not only plentiful but thoughtful in this Criterion-like release, spread out on two discs. Perhaps the most significant supplement is the "Audio Commentary with director Harry Kümel," featured with the Director's Cut. Also including Françoise Levie, this chat offers honest and informative insights into the production itself and the director's attitudes. Another treat chock full of trivia is "Orson Welles Uncut," which delves into the master's career with the help of Kümel, producer Pierre Levie, Mathieu Carrière, Susan Hampshire, and Gerry Fisher. Here we get the dirt on Welle's erratic temper, shots of him missing lines, etc., during the filming of Malpertuis. "Susan Hampshire: One Actress, Three Parts," is an 11-minute featurette containing new interviews with Hampshire about her challenging stint. "Reflections of Darkness: Del Valle on Kümel," is a wonderfully relaxed yet informative discussion with the director, covering his inspirations, early work, and views with particular emphasis on Malpertuis and Daughters.
While only 7 minutes long, a short piece on the author "Jean Ray / John Flanders" manages to delve into the fantastical world of the Belgian writer whose life was as dark as his underappreciated fiction. This is followed by an "International Trailer" and "liner notes" from David Del Valle and Ernest Mathi.
Review by William Simmons
|Released by Barrel Entertainment|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|