Two men hide in wait for a sailor to disembark the ship he has been on these past few months. He is Jan (Mathieu Carrière), and his family are looking for him as they have important news, but as he walks through the streets of the town he catches sight of a woman in the distance who he is sure he recognises as his long lost sister Nancy (Susan Hampshire). He gives chase, calling her name as she slips out of sight, and the two men follow, not revealing their presence as Jan finds himself amid a street party and finally catching up to her, he spins her around: but it's not Nancy at all, it's another woman who looks like her. However, he'll be seeing Nancy soon enough...
Jean Ray's Malpertuis is often considered the best fantasy or horror novel to have come out of Belgium, and so one of that country's leading directors, Harry Kümel, was a shoo-in to take the task of adapting it to the big screen, especially after the very impressive Daughters of Darkness was released earlier in the year. Unfortunately, the vampire movie was as successful as this follow-up was not, so it languished in obscurity, taken to heart by the few who had seen it and liked what Kumel was aiming for. It's true he manages to capture Ray's ripe writing style visually, but even when it became easier to see in the twenty-first century, there were those who felt it had been overrated by its fans.
The main complaint was that the film was confusing, which was odd in that although there was a certain mystery about what is really going on, it is all revealed by one of the key characters at the finale (which adds a coda not present in the original). The central notion about precisely what has brought Jan to the crumbling country house of Malpertuis is an audacious one, but until that big explanation you might find there's rather too much of the wandering about its dusty corridors when what you'll be wanting is some kind of plot progression, and if you know the ending already then wondering about what all this has to do with it might well be on the cards. Before that, there is a trap to be set up.
Orson Welles appears as Jan's uncle Cassavius, an old sea dog who has a secret about his family that Jan is uanware of as yet. This must have been a great role for Welles, as he's hardly in the film at all and when he is he's lying in bed, but in spite of this apparent drawback he does make an impression as the old patriarch whose will is to be read out when the whole clan have assembled. Thus when Jan makes his way up to the bedroom, after a rather too amorous for comfort welcome from his sister Nancy, he hears that Cassavius has a vast fortune to be doled out amongst them. There's a catch, of course, and that is if they want the cash, they must stay within the grounds of the house for the rest of their lives.
I'm not sure you'd be able to get away with that legally, but that's what the whole plot rests upon, that Jan and company, including a bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins, are stuck where they are, which makes you think well, what use is the inheritance if there's no way to spend it? - there was no internet shopping in the nineteen-twenties after all. But this is simply the cue for a succession of strange happenings, which do drag around the halfway mark when no resolution appears to be in sight, but are worth staying with because Kümel's realisation of the climax is genuinely arresting and weird. There are clues to what is going on - Cassavius's best friend being a taxidermist, for example - but if you don't know then try not to have it spoiled for you. With Hampshire in three roles as various members of the doomed family, the casting is appropriately eccentric, and Kümel creates an ambience of decadence and fatalism that is by and large successful for the material. Not quite as good as its fans would have you believe, then, but no way the disaster some would accuse it of being. Music by Georges Delerue.