French horror has been enjoying somewhat of a revival over the last few years, with films such as “High Tension” and “In My Skin” enjoying international success. “Malefique” is another such slice of full blooded Gallic genre cinema which, though made back in 2002 is finally seeing the light of day. Rather than taking its cue from the vapid, teen-friendly horrors which still dominate Hollywood ‘s version of horror, “Malefique” is a distinctly adult affair, cruelly playing with the viewer’s imagination to produce an atmosphere of dark wonder and dread.
The film takes place in a grimy prison cell, whose newest inhabitant is Carrere (Gerald Laroche), a crooked businessman convicted of fraud and betrayed by his wife. His fellow inmates are Marcus (Clovis Cornillac), a psychotic drag queen, Daisy (Dimitri Rataud), a mentally retarded cannibal, and Lasalle (Philippe Laudenbach, also seen in the recent “Arsene Lupin” adaptation), a quiet, intellectual elderly man who killed his wife and who now works in the prison library. The four seem to be offered a chance at escape when they discover a book of ancient black magic which belonged to a murderer who disappeared from the same room many years ago. Each for their own reasons, the prisoners try to unlock the secrets of the book, whose dark mysteries and seductive promises are not what they seem, and which instead unleashes evil forces and bloody mayhem.
Although “Malefique” is set almost entirely in one room, debut director Eric Valette never allows things to get boring, and actually uses this restriction to his advantage, shooting the location for maximum claustrophobia and giving the viewer the unpleasant sensation of being trapped along with the characters. The film has a grimy, shadowy feel influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which makes for a very creepy and unsettling atmosphere. The plot moves along at a fair pace, with well-timed revelations, and Valette makes the brave move of not simply spoon feeding the viewer answers or explanations for the increasingly bizarre events.
Although the film as a whole is coherent, there are several leaps in plot which do require imagination and effort to properly comprehend or even follow, making it at times feel like a black-hearted and surreal riddle. This again serves well to generate sympathy, not so much for the selfish and unlikable characters themselves, but rather with their situation, as they try to work out the true nature of the book’s powers. Though there is little effort to explore the minds of the characters, their pettiness and desperation are all too clear, and so is their very palpable drive to escape. As such, the film is without an obvious or heroic protagonist, or indeed any hope or positive reflection on the human condition.
Yet “Malefique” is gripping, in a bleak, nihilistic fashion, with a feeling of doom constantly hanging over the proceedings. The special effects are used sparingly and skilfully, and make the film’s dark magic a thing of wonder and genuine threat rather than mere cheap thrills. Similarly, although there is a fair amount of gore involved, with some imaginative and brutal death scenes, it is never used gratuitously, and as such has considerable impact and shock.
In fact, the only real problem with “Malefique” comes with the final act, which feels more like a sick joke than a rewarding conclusion. While undoubtedly fitting, the ending nevertheless feels abrupt, and somehow cheapens the viewer’s efforts to unravel the film’s myriad complexities. Although this may provide a key to improve future viewings, the initial feeling is certainly one of disappointment.
Despite this, “Malefique” is certainly one of the better horror films of the last few years, and one of the few with a semblance of intelligence and originality. The director plays his cards with a dreadful cunning, and gives the viewer the disturbing feeling of direct involvement with the plot, an achievement which makes the film harrowing and indeed essential for genre fans.
Eric Valette (director) / Alexandre Charlot, Franck Magnier (screenplay), FranÃ§ois Cognard (idea)
CAST: G’rald Laroche …. Carrere
Philippe Laudenbach …. Lassalle
Clovis Cornillac …. Marcus
Dimitri Rataud …. PÃ¢querette
Didier B’nureau …. Hippolyte Picus
F’licia Massoni …. Claire Carrere
Geoffrey Carey …. Charles Danvers
Paul-Alexandre Bardela …. Hugo Carrere