Director: Harry Kümel
Barrel Entertainment

Belgian-born director Harry Kümel is known to horror fans for his DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, one of the best vampire films of the 1970s. Those in the U.S. who follow his career have had a hard time catching up with MALPERTUIS, Kümel’s ambitious, fantasy-laced follow-up, which never received theatrical distribution here. Barrel Entertainment (the company which gave the ultimate treatment to the late Roger Watkins’s LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET) has unleashed a Criterion-like two-disc set of this elusive slice of Euro cinema with a treasure trove of accompanying extras.

Fair-haired sailor Jan (Mathieu Carrière) comes ashore and visits a red light district club where he gets bashed in the head in a brawl over a woman. He soon wakes up from unconsciousness, finding himself in "Malpertuis", a very large house with a treacherous reputation. In Malpertuis, Jan finds reassurance with his sweet older sister Nancy (Susan Hampshire), lust with the raven-haired temptress Alice (Hampshire again) and what he thinks is love with the mysterious Euryale (Hampshire once again). But all the oddballs residing in the house are after the fortune of its possessor, the dying, bed-ridden Cassavius (Orson Welles). Cassavius dictates that all inheritors must spend their entire lives in Malpertuis or else forfeit their money. This leads young Jan on a search through the long halls and dark corridors, trying to uncover the secret of the house.

Based on the novel by Jean Ray, MALPERTUIS gives Kümel the opportunity to let his imagination run wild, mixing horror and fantasy elements into one very bizarre movie with a startling ending. Horror fans will probably better appreciate the more comprehensible gothic eroticism of his DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, but MALPERTUIS is an alluring, arty exorcise in weirdness that gets better with repeated viewings. Though made on a limited budget, the imaginative set design used to fashion the monster that is the inescapable Malpertuis, and the cinematography by Britisher Gerry Fisher is outstanding, adding an overall surreal look to the fairy tale-like film. The horror elements are illustrated by a creepy taxidermist who wants to stuff every living thing (including our hero), a fire-breathing houseguest setting a priest aflame, an eagle chomping on the innards of a would-be escapee, a gorgon who can turn living objects to stone, etc.

MALPERTUIS’ cast includes a diverse group of European actors as the old world eccentrics who are more than meets the eye, including Michel Bouquet, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Walter Rilla. Orson Welles gives a hardy, memorable performance as Cassavius, even though he’s relegated to a four-post bed and has very little screen time. British actress Susan Hampshire is a stand-out chameleon of sorts in three very different parts (or four actually, not to give away too much), in a variety of simple but effective make-ups and wigs to differentiate them. As Jan, pretty-boy Mathieu Carrière is the weakest acting link here, and though he tends to be wooden, his performance doesn’t really hinder the film all that much.

For this DVD presentation, two versions of the film have been spread across the two discs. Disc 1 contains Kümel’s approved version (119 minutes) and Disc 2 embodies the first version (100 minutes) which was shown at Cannes, and disapproved by its maker. Kümel claims the original editor didn’t understand what to make of the film, and in comparison with his approved, differently edited and longer version, this clearly shows. Though longer, the director’s cut is more triumphant and better-defined, reinstating some choice scenes (such as a bunch of knitting needles thrown to the floor and turning into a small sea of snakes), but both have merit since the Cannes version is in English, showcasing the original voices of Welles, Hampshire and some of the other actors (though some were obviously re-dubbed to hide their foreign accents). The director’s cut is in Flemish only, with optional English subtitles. Both versions are presented in handsome 1.85:1 anamorphic transfers, and although both contain some print blemishes, the resulting transfers are satisfying (with the director’s cut having an edge in quality). Audio presentations on both are clear and mixed well.

A number of fine extras are spread across the two discs. An audio commentary with Kümel and Françoise Levie (daughter of producer Pierre Levie) accompanies the director’s cut, giving good insight into the film’s production and revealing a lot of the director’s little film-making tricks and techniques. It’s funny that Kümel views Welles in a more positive light here than when he’s interviewed elsewhere on this DVD presentation. “Reflection of Darkness” is a lengthy video interview conducted with Kümel in California in 2004 with film historian David Del Valle. It’s a very relaxed, candid and entertaining conversation with the director, as he discusses his cinematic influences, his early film works, and much more, with special emphasis put on DAUGHTERS OF DARKNES and MALPUERTIS. “Orson Welles Uncut” is a fairly fascinating look at the legendary film figure, with on-camera participation by Kümel (who says he also considered Peter Ustinov and John Houston for Welles’ part), producer Pierre Levie, actor Mathieu Carrière (who now has white hair), actress Susan Hampshire and cinematographer Gerry Fisher. Along with the stories about Welles’ erratic behavior, the featurette also contain outtakes of the actor messing up his lines and/or calling cut and asking for a re-take! “Susan Hampshire: One Actress, Three Parts” has Hampshire fondly reflecting her three roles and the make-up involved. Kümel and Fisher are also interviewed here, and the featurette contains some of Hampshire’s rare make-up tests, as well as several outtakes. A shorter featurette on Malpertuis' original author, “Jean Ray/John Flanders”, is also included, as in an international trailer and a nice booklet with excellent liner notes by Del Valle and Ernest Mathijs. (George R. Reis)