Thursday, December 12, 2013

Malpertuis (1971)

... aka: Legend of Doom House, The
... aka: Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House
... aka: Malpertuis: Histoire d'une maison maudite

Directed by:
Harry Kümel

After his ship docks for the night, pretty boy sailor Jan (Mathieu Carrière) hops off and decides to go looking for his childhood home. He locates where it should be, but it's now gone and so is his family. Getting a glimpse of a woman off in the distance who looks like his sister, he follows her through the streets and ends up in a rowdy pub / brothel. The girl he thought was his sister is actually Bets (Sylvie Vartan), a sultry cabaret singer and working girl. Two other men; Charles Dideloo (Michel Bouquet) and Mathias Crook (Daniel Pilon), have been trailing Jan ever since he left the ship and make mention of him falling into their "trap." Charles gets Sylvie's boyfriend / pimp all riled up and a bar brawl ensues. Jan is struck over the head and passes out. When he awakens, he's in a nautical-themed bedroom... but he's finally found his long-lost sister Nancy (Susan Hampshire), who's waiting by his bedside. Jan soon discovers he's actually at his Uncle Quintin Cassavius' (Orson Welles) sprawling mansion, which is called Malpertuis. Since he equates his uncle to the Devil and the home to Hell, we know this isn't necessarily a good thing.

Cassavius is not a very nice man. He's cheap, rude, dirty, a huge glutton (he eats an entire roasted pig in one sitting) and refers to the staff as things like "miserable wretches" and "scavenging cows." He's also dying and seems to spend most of his time lying in bed barking out orders. For some reason, he's insistent on seeing his nephew Jan, who's not really interested but finally caves when Charles, who turns out to be his uncle, threatens to rape his virtuous sister! Cassavius tells Jan he wants him to take his place and become "master of the world." Lots of other strange and eccentric people occupy the home, including imbecilic, overly-sensitive taxidermist Philaris (Charles Janssens) and the grubby Lampernist (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who occupies a cell and is paranoid he won't have enough light. Other than the above mentioned characters and the staff, Charles' wife Sylvia (Dora van de Groen) and daughter Euryale (Hampshire again, in a red wig), Nancy's lover Mathias and a trio of sisters; Eleonora (Jet Naessens), Rosaria (Cara Van Wersch) and Alice (Hampshire again, in a brown wig), all gather at the dying patriarch's bed to hear his final wishes.

Cassavius splits the money evenly between everyone present, but there's just one small catch. The money is to be distributed annually and, to receive it, they must stay inside the Malpertuis grounds and never leave. The last survivor will inherit the home and all that goes with it. If the last two survivors are male and female, they must marry. Lawyer Eisengott (Walter Rilla) is lurking around to ensure the heirs all play by the rules. From that general set-up, this goes in all kinds of bizarre, nonsensical directions. Jan falls in love with the ethereal beauty Euryale, despite the fact she barely talks to him and refuses to ever look him in the eyes. Nancy plans to flee the home with her lover but he's found dead with a spike driven through his head. Alice, who is referred to as Alecto by her cackling sisters, seduces both Charles and then Jan. When Cassavius' tomb is opened, he's somehow turned into a stone statue. Distorted fetuses are kept in jars, an eagle rips a guy apart, there's mention of Cassavius wanting to create a "master race" of blonde haired, blue eyed people and the greedy characters sit around counting their money and behaving like mad men and women. The home itself is a strange place full of long hallways, staircases leading up and down and tons of locked doors. Just what's up with all the oddball characters? And what is the secret of the home?

Malpertuis (first released in the U.S. as The Legend of Doom House) was director Kümell's follow-up to his acclaimed arty-erotic lesbian vampire hit Daughters of Darkness (released the same year). Despite being well-produced and extremely nice from a visual standpoint, booking a showing at Cannes in 1972 and having some internationally bankable name stars in he cast, it was financially unsuccessful and didn't get near the attention that Daughters did. After viewing it, it's easy to understand why. You ever get the impression certain films are strange and random simply for the sake of being strange and random? I couldn't tell you what point (if any) this was attempting to make. It's even sandwiched with Alice in Wonderland references (ending with a Lewis Carroll quote even) as if the whole point was to be irreverent. Twists - one after another - are piled on during the last 20 minutes; everything from elements of Greek mythology to the standard "it was all just a dream" cop out, but after sitting through nearly two hours of bizarre characters doing bizarre, nonsensical things I found myself beat into such a state of complacency that I'd stopped caring. This is a definitely a case where personal taste is going to dictate one's enjoyment. Those who don't care a whole lot about a coherent narrative or a stable grounding point will likely soak up what this has to offer. Others are going to have a more difficult time with it.

I'm not sure how close this sticks to the Jean Ray novel on which it is based, but if it's faithful I'd probably have little interest in actually reading the book myself. On the plus side, it looks great, the art direction and photography are both superb and British actress Hampshire is extremely striking (enhanced by some nicely subtle makeups) playing no less than five different roles.

Even though I was lukewarm on this one overall, I did love all the supplements on the Barrel Entertainment DVD. It has interviews with the director (who also provides a commentary track), Hampshire, Carrière, producer Pierre Levie and director of photography Gerry Fisher. Kümel basically says that Welles was a huge pain the ass to work with, was drunk the whole shoot, had absolutely no respect for the other actors and gave the impression he would leave the set at any moment if he didn't get his way; concluding that the cast and crew actually celebrated once he finished his scenes and left the set! Fisher adds that Welles told the director his main job was to please him and he was a diva control freak who demanded things be done on his way or else. Apparently, Welles insisted on doing his own [they say terrible] makeup, demanded close-ups and stopped the shooting for extended lunch breaks whenever he felt like it, throwing them completely off schedule. The DVD also shows some behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot which pretty much lend credence to these claims. The same footage shows that the film was shot in English, though the version I watched had been dubbed into French.

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