Four inmates find a journal full of symbols and incantations in “Malefique,” first-time Gallic helmer Eric Valette’s satanic horror pic. Consummate thesping, particularly by Clovis Cornillac as a muscular transsexual, and a strong compositional sense keep story consistently engrossing on a psychological level, though supernatural elements lack a corresponding rigor. Skedded to open in France on May 7, pic shouldn’t disappoint French cult horror fans, but genre and lack of pricey f/x make Stateside pickup unlikely.
Virtually all of “Malefique” takes place between the four walls of the prison cell. Action is kicked off by the arrival of a crooked CEO, whose corporate callousness proves more horrific than the twisted proclivities of the other roomies.
Those cellmates include: A gleefully excitable halfwit whose propensity to gobble up everything extended even to his infant sister; a hermaphrodite equally adept at sodomy, breast feeding and finger-chopping; and an enigmatic professor who trashed his books and slashed his wife. Interaction of the four is lively, creepy and funny — until the discovery of the arcane journal works its black magic.
Limned in the somber shades of Lovecraft and Argento, pic sustains mood of growing malevolence with tense convict groupings in the daytime and scuttling rats, bugs and terrible dreams at night. Not content with a satanic text, Valette adds a diabolic image system, a video camera left by a fussy little man whose insistence on his name, Hippolyte Pincus, can only indicate the devil.
Curiously, Valette gets relatively little mileage from the necromantic mini-cam, aside from a few temporal fast-forwards and a how-to lesson in passing through walls. Indeed, most of the f/x (glowing pentagrams, morphing bodies, great winds, glowing white lights), though solid, could be downloaded straight off the horror clip art file.
Film’s one great exception is the truly horrific death of the simpleton who, as is his omnivorous wont, eats pages of the book only to be levitated, his limbs slowly twisting and breaking one by one till he’s flung to the ground in an anatomically impossible heap. Happily, actors are able to pull off pic’s fairly predictable ironies with enough panache to make them generically satisfying.
Tech credits belie low budget, the f/x more lacking in originality than technique.