Reviewed by: Themroc

In present-day France, a white collar criminal named Carrere arrives in jail awaiting trial on charges of commercial malfeasance. He is placed in a cell with a childlike and rather backward young man known as Daisy who compulsively eats things, a pre-op transsexual bodybuilder named Marcus and a wife-murdering librarian named Jean Lassalle. Initially confident that his wife will bail him out, Carrere soon begins to share in their sullen desperation when it emerges that not only has she filed for divorce, but that all the money and assets are in her name so he can’t even afford a lawyer. During one of their frequent bouts of bickering, however, the inmates stumble upon a journal belonging to a convict named Charles Danvers, who was imprisoned in the same cell back in 1920. According to prison myth, Danvers, a practising black magician, used the spells contained within the journal to escape from his cell by walking through the walls.

Considering that hokey projects like this are notoriously difficult to finance, the film-makers’ decision to set it almost exclusively in one room initially seems a wise one. For a start, it appears to have allowed money to be spent on the areas in which low-budget projects traditionally suffer – casting and production values. The problem is that rather than crafting a film designed to play to the strengths of these self-imposed restrictions, the director has instead attempted to shoehorn in a story to which the structure is completely ill-suited. The result is that the good performances and largely solid direction are completely wasted on a rambling script.

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What’s ironic is that, while exposition in low-budget horror is frequently perfunctory, Malefique makes a fairly decent fist of introducing the characters and their idiosyncrasies. The opening post-titlecard scene in which Carrere speaks to his wife and son following his incarceration, for instance, bodes well.

The film’s problems begin once the squabbling inmates happen upon Danvers’ book. The reason that stories of this kind don’t usually take place in single confined locations is that, more often than not, their dramatic momentum depends on the detective work undertaken by their characters. Once the protagonist has found their book (or map or historical artefact or whatever), they’ll puzzle over its origins, interview historians and dig for clues in dusty old libraries while bodies start to mysteriously stack up. Finally they’ll track down an obscure and possibly certifiable expert in matters of the occult who will fill in the gaps, mutter ominous warnings and then send them off for a showdown with whatever forces they’ve inadvertently unleashed.

The reason that locating this kind of story inside a prison cell is so utterly self-defeating is that the characters can do none of these things. In other words, even before the film gets properly underway, the writers have given themselves an intractable problem. How do you keep a detective story moving when your protagonists are unable to do any detective work?

The answer, apparently, is that you bestow upon them a gift for unerringly accurate intuition and guesswork and, when that fails, you rely upon crude dei ex machinis. Carrere, for instance, conveniently understands Latin and Greek (at least enough to translate a book that heavily features words such as “placenta”), and the ex-Librarian Lassalle, it transpires, is adequately versed in folklore and the occult to authoritatively answer all questions that arise from the plot’s many contrivances and inconsistencies.

When Marcus finally throws the book out of the window following another random but particularly nasty episode, it mysteriously reappears in the hands of a new cellmate named Picus. When Picus himself subsequently vanishes leaving only a digital video camera (which naturally provides them with further information), Lassalle, who seems unfazed by any of this, has the answer. “You can’t get rid of it,” he intones sagely. “The book will always come back”. Oh yeah? And how do you know this? That every one of these pronouncements turns out to be correct only makes them more annoying.

Film-makers should be aware that if they treat their audience with such lazy contempt it only invites a response in kind. As the narrative grinds to a halt, the temptation is simply to switch off. Half-baked ideas are thrown about in a frantic attempt to keep things interesting, but it is all to no avail. Marcus breast-feeds Daisy and sodomises Lassalle, people shout at one another, violence flares and subsides, carnivorous cell walls devour a character’s fingers, pages in the journal inexplicably disappear then reappear, toys come to life and it’s all punctuated by cheesy CGI. None of these incidents are properly set up or motivated, none of them build meaningfully on the one preceding and none of them are satisfactorily paid off. By the end, the rules that govern the universe in which the film is set have become so elastic that practically anything is possible and for any reason. Consequently nothing is at stake and whatever tension the scenario may have had at inception has drained away.

And the point of all this? After more than an hour of misdirection spent going round and round in circles, it turns out that Malefique is neither about prison nor escape (at least not in the literal sense) nor even black magic. Instead it is simply an enormously convoluted retelling of The Tale Of The Monkey’s Paw, a chilling but straightforward parable, the simple moral of which is “Be careful what you wish for”. Claude Miller’s visceral and quietly brilliant 1998 film La Classe De Neige briefly retells this same story to make one illustrative point, but does it in about four minutes of screen time. Had Malefique been conceived as a short film along these lines it might have been as effective as the final payoff - when it eventually arrives – frustratingly suggests.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2005
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Malefique packshot
Three cellmates find a mythical journal used to perform witchcraft.
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Director: Eric Valette

Writer: Alexandre Charlot, Franck Magnier, based on an original idea by Francois Cognard

Starring: Gerald Larouche, Philippe Laudenbach, Clovis Cornillac, Dimitri Rataud

Year: 2005

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France


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