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MALPERTUIS (1972)
[aka Malpertuis: Histoire D’Une Maison Maudite
aka The Legend Of Doom House]

"This lifeboat is not all that remains of his last voyage, alas!"
"What else remains?"
"The rest is hidden in Malpertuis."

Director: Harry Kümel
Starring: Mathieu Carriere, Susan Hampshire, Orson Welles, Michel Bouquet, Charles Janssens, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sylvie Vartan, Daniel Pilon, Dora van der Groen, Walter Rilla, Jet Naessens, Cara Van Wersch, Edouard Ravais
Screenplay: Jean Ferry, based upon the novel by Jean Ray (Raymond Jean Marie de Kremer)
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Synopsis: A young sailor, Yann (Mathieu Carriere), disembarks in his home town and after a futile search for his sister, is knocked unconscious in a bar at the instigation of his uncle, Charles Dideloo (Michel Bouquet). When Yann awakens, his sister, Nancy (Susan Hampshire), is with him. Yann is dismayed to find that they are at Malpertuis, the huge, crumbling, mysterious house owned by their great-uncle, Quentin Cassave (Orson Welles). Reminding Nancy of their father’s belief that Cassave is an evil man, Yann tries to talk her into leaving with him, but Nancy reveals that she is in love with one of the house’s inhabitants. A booming voice, that of Cassave, rings through the house, demanding food. A second voice belonging to a man called Lampernisse (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who seems to live in a cave-like room beneath a staircase, also echoes around the house, pleading for someone to bring him a light. A taxidermist, Philarete (Charles Janssens), wins Cassave’s approbation by displaying a stuffed rat, but disturbs his patron by revealing that Yann is planning to leave. Yann reluctantly visits Cassave, who tells him that he has chosen him to carry on his work. Yann is nevertheless determined to leave, but changes his mind after encountering Euryale (Susan Hampshire), the beautiful daughter of the Dideloos. All of Malpertuis’ inhabitants gather at Cassave’s deathbed: Yann and Nancy; the Dideloos and Euryale; Philarete; three sisters, Eleonore (Jet Naessens), Rosalie (Cara Van Wersch) and Alice (Susan Hampshire); Nancy’s lover, Mathias (Daniel Pilon); and the servants. Lampernisse watches through a hole in the wall. At first delighted to hear that Cassave’s fortune will be divided equally amongst them all, the inhabitants are horrified when they are told that if they ever leave Malpertuis, they will forfeit their inheritance. Dismissing the group, Cassave asks Euryale to help him die…. After the funeral, Yann tries to talk about Cassave with Father Doucedame (Edouard Ravais), who evades his questions. Undaunted, Yann swears that he will uncover the truth about Malpertuis.

Comments: Director Harry Kümel’s follow-up to his marvellous La Rouge Aux Levres (Daughters Of Darkness) (1971) is an interesting but not entirely satisfactory attempt at filming fantasy writer Jean Ray’s only novel. This story of a strange house and its even stranger tenants contains a number of effective sequences, but ultimately the whole just doesn’t gel. Malpertuis itself, however, is one of the film’s successes. Huge and menacing, oppressive and claustrophobic despite its endless corridors and staircases to nowhere, the house is as much a character in the story as any of the people inhabiting it.

Its name taken from an old expression for a fox’s (i.e. the devil’s) lair, the house forms a perfect backdrop for the atrophied lives of those within. We can readily believe that even without the intervention of Quentin Cassave and his tame taxidermist, Malpertuis would have had the power to hold its once all-powerful residents in confinement and reduce them to the state in which we see them: a dull, petty, pseudo-middle class society content to pass the time in pointless squabbling and counting money that can never be spent.

Apart from the sequences centering on this very odd coterie, there are a number of other effective scenes: two visits to Philarete’s workshop; a horrible discovery in a rat trap; a surprisingly sad moment when Euryale realises that the lizard she has been cradling has turned to stone; and, best of all, Yann’s unnerving encounter with three masked prostitutes, an episode which beautifully echoes the main themes of the film. The major failure of Malpertuis is that the viewer is never is given anything like a recognisable "reality" that can act as a contrast to the situation within the house. Judging by the brief glimpses we are given of Yann’s hometown, the outside world is just as strange as that existing inside the walls of Malpertuis. This weakens the film’s attempt at creating a sense of the uncanny.

The final sequence within the house, in which the identities of the inmates are revealed, is almost thrown away rather than acting as the climax it should be; it is also damaged by poor special effects. This section of the film is also lacking thematically: Cassave’s captives are trapped because of mankind’s loss of faith, and yet this aspect of the story is barely even touched upon. The "modern" twist ending is just annoying, contributing nothing.

In terms of the cast, another of the film’s flaws is that Mathieu Carriere is so uninteresting that it is difficult for the audience to care much what happens to him, or about his search for the truth, particularly when a large proportion of that search consists of Yann wandering along corridors, or up and down staircases. The film’s best performance probably comes from Michel Bouquet as Charles Dideloo, part pervert, part Uriah Heep, whose notion of family duty includes having his own nephew beaten unconscious, and who positively quivers with pleasure while being abused and insulted by the dying Cassave. Malpertuis is also a tour-de-force for Susan Hampshire, who manages to project three distinct personalities as Nancy, Euryale and Alice/Alecto, as well as appearing as two other, more minor characters. Orson Welles’ scenes are all too brief, but he is as always a commanding presence. Not only would his Cassave have been capable of keeping his unnatural captives in a state of subjection, we can believe that he positively enjoyed it. Also effective is Charles Janssens as Cassave’s partner in crime, Philarete the taxidermist, whose passion for his work carries him to gruesome lengths.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB