Tuesday, June 30, 2015

La malédiction de Belphégor (1967)

... aka: Curse of Belphegor, The
... aka: La mortale trappola di Belfagor (The Deadly Trap of Belfagor)

Directed by:
Georges Combret
Jean Maley (co-director)

Arthur Bernède was an accomplished stage writer who went on to also become an important figure in the early days of French silent cinema by co-writing (with Louis Feuillade) several popular serials centered around a shrouded, Shadow-like avenger named Judex. Along with Feuillade, fellow writer Gaston Leroux and actor René Navarre, Bernède helped to form the company Société des Cinéromans, a clever if short-lived outfit which produced both books and film adaptations of said books and released them simultaneously; one of the earliest examples of cross-promotion between entertainment mediums. Société des Cinéromans was eventually dissolved into Pathé Cinema in 1922. Five years later, Bernède wrote the crime novel Belphégor (released in America in 1929 as The Mystery of the Louvre), which centered around Simone Desroches, a villainous thief who “haunts” the famous Louvre museum in Paris in phantom garb and was likely influenced by his old pal Leroux's famous 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera.  The same year the Belphégor novel was released, a film adaptation starring Navarre as a detective was made. Bernède kept busy the remainder of his days writing novels, screenplays, stage plays, operas and poetry until his death in 1937.

Belphégor the original novel and (below) the 1927 film adaptation.

Belphégor would not be revived again until nearly 40 years later with the release of Belphégor, ou La fantôme du Louvre ("Belphegor, or The Phantom of the Louvre"), a TV miniseries originally shown in four 72 minute increments on French TV in March 1965. The show, which is now considered a landmark program in its home country, was a massive success with audiences of the day. But where there's success there are vultures waiting in the wings ready to cash in. That leads us to La malédiction de Belphégor ("The Curse of Belphegor"), which is a completely unrelated film hoping to rope in the people who were impressed with the tele-film. It has next to nothing to do with Bernède's novel, aside from having a phantom character and using the Belphégor name. The people responsible for this cash-in were able to get away with it simply because "Belphegor" is also the name of a figure in demonology; one of the seven princes of hell. What they came up with not only didn't involve Bernède's creation but it also didn't involve the demon, but is instead a very minor, forgettable little mystery set in the cutthroat world of theater, where those involved in a stage production are bumped off one by one by a mysterious killer.

Belphegor, the demon of discovery and invention. Also makes for a great copyright scapegoat!

At the Opera of Toulon, the cast and crew hoping to put on a Satanism / human sacrifice-themed ballet (!) entitled “La malédiction de Belphégor” soon find their numbers dwindling. First up is the art director, who manages to fall and break his neck after a startle. Afterward, a large gold statue of the demon Belphégor that's set to be used as a centerpiece in the production starts playing what sounds like music. And then it talks. The voice coming from it tells a handful of the ballet's major players that he is “The master of you all!” and that they will all die if they continue on with the play. The voice then lays out the exact order in which they'll be killed. Among the targets are theater co-owners Garnier (Maurice Chevit) and Hubert Delaroche (Achille Zavata), writer Jacques Olivier (Marcel Charvey) and director Fred Daxo (Paul Guers). Police are called and an quick examination of the statue reveals no sound equipment anywhere on it, so the show must go on...

The theater premiere goes off without a hitch, playing to a packed house, good reviews and a month's worth of reservations. However, later that night, Garnier is stalked and stabbed to death with a dagger by an assailant cloaked in black, with gold-painted hands and wearing a gold mask identical to the face of the statue. Pinned to the body is a piece of signature music with Belphegor's name written on it. Inspector Raymond Legris (Raymond Souplex) and his assistant Jean Lefèvre (Jean Daurand) are called in to investigate and weed through the multiple suspects. Garnier was facing major financial problems and already had to sell most of his shares in the theater to Hubert. Garnier's immature 25-year-old ward Roger Rodin (Maurice Sarfati) becomes a chief suspect not only because he's set to inherit his late guardian's share but also because he jokingly threw a dagger at handyman Mr. Plumme (Raymond Bussières). However, Roger's just one of many suspects.

Claude Randall (Noëlle Noblecourt), a reporter for the newspaper Le Provençal, starts looking into matters and finds herself in a relationship with Roger, which begins with her just trying to pump info out of him but then blossoms into something more serious. Claude trails the masked killer back to a secluded, crumbling old farmhouse but doesn't reveal to anyone where it's at because she wants to solve the mystery all on her own. That ends up biting her in the ass when she's kidnapped and held prisoner in a locked room where she's tortured with high-frequency sound waves that manage to knock her unconscious. Later, she and Roger will find themselves tied up to a death trap with a large torch slowly heading toward them. As his coup d'etat, the killer eventually plots to murder the ballet's star attraction dancer, Nadia Strafort (Dominique Boschero), during a live performance right in front of the audience.

“They can't touch my legend. I'll be back!!! Belphégor.”

Among the plot complications (which are vague, confusing and very poorly handled) are blackmail, stolen confidential documents, infidelity and a conspiracy among multiple characters to get ownership of the theater away from its original owner. There's (mostly lame) comic relief from the half-senile old handyman and his frustrated wife (Annette Poivre), as well as a flamboyant gay who prances and skips around everywhere and has a boyfriend named Kitten.

The only interesting thing about this routine, murky film, and it isn't much, is that the killer is something of an electronics wiz. Thanks to hidden cameras and a large satellite dish, he's able to watch the action around his hideout and in the theater on a large TV monitor back in his lair. With the flip of a switch he can close and open doors, toss nets on victims, trap people in his torture room, etc. Elements are blatantly swiped from The Phantom of the Opera as well as numerous James Bond (most especially Goldfinger) and Fu Manchu films. We ultimately learn next to nothing about the killer or his motive and there's no adequate resolution to the film, as if this were intended to kick start a series that never happened.

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