In Dutch or Flemish, depending on which source one consults, Belgian director Harry Kümel’s follow-up to his cult classic about female vampires, Les lèvres rouges (Red Lips, a.k.a. Daughters of Darkness, 1971), is a strange one. Malpertuis, from Belgian author Jean Ray’s novel, is the entertaining adventures of a dreamer, a young sailor off-ship and virtually imprisoned in his rich uncle’s crumbling mansion, at some time before the First World War, although the boy does eventually step into the present. Indeed, at least twice he awakes from his dream only to walk right back into it without falling asleep or unconscious. The boy’s name is Jan de Kremer, we find out near the end. Ray’s birth name was Raymond Jean Marie de Kremer.
      It is, at once, a horror film and a boy’s adventure that we have here, with a glimpse of female frontal nudity, one of the most exciting guy-fights ever, weird stuffed animals whose hybrid nature makes them partly human, and a ferocious assault by a gigantic bird of prey on a chained-down man more terrifying than anything in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). There are, to the point of mannerism, too numerous shots of Jan walking briskly towards or away from the camera down streets or corridors, or running towards or away from the camera. There’s a crippled little boy who is smacked down in the street and otherwise ignored, whom we suspect is a child-version of Jan, who seems pretty much a child himself.
      But interpretation of this film is pretty much up for grabs. One actress plays at least five roles, and his girlie-walk might suggest that she is also playing Jan if we didn’t recognize thin-nosed, woodenly handsome Mathieu Carrière in the part. There is some nonsense about the mansion’s inhabitants being ancient Greek gods corraled on an Ionian Sea island and reduced by Cassavius (Orson Welles), the dying uncle, to middle- and lower-class ignominy; but one doesn’t need to think too much about this film. That seems the wrong approach.

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