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cast: Gérald Laroche, Philippe Laudenbach, Dimitri Rataud, and Clovis Cornillac

director: Eric Vallette

100 minutes (18) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Revolver DVD Region 2 retail
[released 21 November]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
If you're one of those who recognise with pleasure such arcane titles as 'Book of the Dead', 'Book of Eibon' or 'Necronomicon', then you should feel right at home with Malefique, a film which also features an occult tome, one with the power to change the destinies of all involved. Discovered by four French prisoners sharing a cell, the fearsome object has been placed in the wall there by Danvers, a serial killer incarcerated back in the 1920s; a man obsessed with rejuvenation and the black arts before he abruptly vanished. Finders of the book are Carrère (Gérald Laroche) a company embezzler shopped by his wife, Lassalle (Philippe Laudenbach) who aspires to be a woman but at the same time body-builds to execute an escape plan, the halfwit Pâquerette (Dimitri Rataud) who once ate his baby sister, and the 'librarian' Marcus (Clovis Cornillac), supposedly driven mad by reading, who murdered his wife. Reminding the viewer of Meat Loaf's equally bizarre, bosomy male in Fight Club (1999), Lassalle begins as the dominant member of the quartet, one who is especially protective of the infantile Pâquerette. With the coming of the book however, and the overarching need to decipher its dangerous contents, Marcus assumes greater and greater significance. At first assured of an early bail, meanwhile Carrère takes little more than academic interest in events. Suddenly he too needs an urgent escape option and, as the prisoners experiment, Danvers' book starts to reveal some of its terrifying powers...

Shot for the most part in a prison cell, and between four or five characters, Malefique has a claustrophobic air entirely suited to its subject matter (as well as the limited budget of the filmmakers). Only at the start and then at the conclusion do we get to leave the confines of the cell, a necessary opening out which only serves to emphasise the doomed, closed-in nature of proceedings elsewhere. More than anything, this is a film about being trapped, either as a victim of your criminal past or of occult events now unfolding. "I'm going to escape," says Carrère at the start of the film, wishing more than anything to be able to rejoin his wife and son. Whether or not he does it will be at a terrible price, and the great irony of the film is that the ultimate form of an 'escape' may not be one a man might imagine.

With all its budget limitations it is greatly to the first-time feature director Eric Vallette's credit that his film succeeds as well as it does. As critics have noticed, it is a film with strong Freudian overtones - Lassalle's distinctive mammaries and adult breast feeding for instance; the picture of a vagina which comes to life and develops an eye; the grown man who dissolves back into a foetus; Danvers' original placenta fetish; the dark cell as a primitive womb from which 'delivery' is awaited, etc. With so many interesting aspects to the script Vallette hardly puts a foot wrong, and he succeeds in creating a genuinely unsettling atmosphere out of what, when one comes down to it, is just a matter of four guys, four bunks, one folding table and a book. There's a genuine, growing, Lovecraftian frisson as the men summon up the unnameable darkness from within its pages, while one or two moments - the aforementioned blinking vagina, or what ultimately happens to Pâquerette - are unsettlingly memorable. The pacing of many of the dark events in Malefique is deliberate, rejecting the rapid cutting of many Hollywood productions: a video culture approach that often subverts the horrified gaze in favour of quick-fix action and gore. Perhaps this is a particularly European manner, as one recalls a similar, measured approach to shocking hallucination taken in such films as Verhoeven's The Fourth Man (1983) - a film that incidentally also shares a particularly nasty image based around a prolapsed eye.

Lensed well in 1.85:1, Malefique benefits from excellent performances and, if for this viewer at least, the conclusion was not as explainable as it might have been, the journey to the final shot was worth taking. Coming so soon after the release of the similarly well-received Haute Tension (aka: Switchblade Romance, 2003), this is another reason to be grateful that good horror films are once again emerging from the French industry, this after a time when it seemed the only worthwhile product came from Asia.

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