AKA The Legend of Doom House; Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House
“For sure, one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see, a cult film above and beyond anything else; a film for those initiated into midnight screenings. Where else do such dreams take place?”—Ernest Mathjis, DVD liner notes for the Barrel Entertainment edition of Malpertuis
DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel
PLOT: When his ship sets anchor in a Flemish town, Jan, a sailor, goes looking for his childhood home, only to find that it burned down years ago. Seeing a fleeing woman he believes to be his sister, he chases her into a brothel where he is knocked unconscious in a brawl. He awakens in Malpertuis, a massive estate ruled by his Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles) from his sickbed. Cassavius reads his will to his very strange extended family, and its provisions set them at deadly odds with one another.
- Malpertuis was an adpation of the only novel written by the Belgian fantasist Jean Ray, who was famous for his macabre short stories (and is sometimes compared to Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft). The novel was complex, composed of four separate narratives told by four characters, and therefore presented a challenge to adapt.
- Kümel’s previous film was the dreamlike, erotic vampire tale Daughters of Darkness [Les lèvres rouges] (1971). Hired to make a sexy commercial horror movie, Kümel delivered a memorably bizarre film that pleased exploitation audiences looking for blood and breasts, but was also a crossover hit in the arthouse circuit. The success of Daughters convinced United Artists to back the Malpertuis project, which was the film Kümel personally wanted to make. UA’s financial backing enabled Kümel to hire Orson Welles for the key role of Cassavius.
- Orson Welles was hired for three days of shooting. An irascible, elderly eccentric by this time in his career, Welles asked for his fee to be delivered in cash in a suitcase. Welles was drunk and rude on the set, interfering with Kümel’s attempts to direct and, in one case, repeatedly ruining one of Michel Bouquet’s takes until the director agreed to give Welles a closeup he had requested. At the end of Welles’ three-day contract, the project was well behind schedule due to the legendary actor’s drunkenness, extended lunch breaks and general peevishness. Apologizing for his behavior, Welles volunteered to work for a fourth day free, and performed all his remaining scenes perfectly in a single morning, putting the production back on schedule.
- Malpertuis was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972, but United Artists did not like Kümel’s two-hour cut and submitted a dubbed, re-edited 100 minute version of the film rather than the director’s preferred version. The film was not popular with the jury, then bombed in both the United States and Europe when UA released its preferred version (misleadingly marketed as a horror pic) as The Legend of Doom House. Not only did the film tank, but Kümel’s promising young career was cut short. Disgusted with studio interference, he began directing in television and teaching, and has directed only a few unremarkable feature films (including some arty softcore pornography) in the last twenty-eight years.
- The director’s cut of the film was unavailable on video for many years, and was not seen until the film was re-released in 2002. This cut was not available on home video until 2005, and not available on Region 1 until 2007.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The weary face of the legendary Orson Welles, grumpy and gray but still regal, as he reclines in tuxedo-like pajamas against scarlet bedsheets. The bed-ridden Welles embodies the decaying secret center of the wickedness of Malpertuis.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before we get to the psychedelic-era Chinese puzzle-box of
Original French trailer for Malpertuis
an ending(s), Malpertuis has created a disorienting sense of oddness. Both the film and the titular estate are labyrinthine mazes filled with enchanting and mysteriously decorated rooms, with little explanation of how these dazzling individual pieces fit together into the grand layout.
COMMENTS: “It’s pretty, but it’s a bit difficult to understand… Somehow, it makes me Continue reading 38. MALPERTUIS (1972)