A haggard prisoner looks up from the journal he holds. His free hand plunges into the open wound of a fellow prisoner lying on the floor, next to the other cellmate’s charred remains. With his victim’s blood, the first prisoner scrawls runes on the wall before returning to his book and reciting a Latin incantation. At first, nothing happens. But then the runes begin to glow, and the wild-eyed prisoner walks toward the wall. So begins Maléfique, Eric Valette‘s 2002 French horror film unlike any you’ve seen.

If Americans know Valette at all, it might be for his 2008 remake of Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call or the 2012 low-budget Christine knock-off Super Hybrid. But Valette’s career began with Maléfique, a surreal character-driven nightmare that deserves a second look from fans of Clive Barker’s body horror and A24’s psychological drama.

Maléfique stars Gérald Laroche as Carrère, an unscrupulous businessman convicted of fraud. He shares a cell with three others: the transgender Marcus (Clovis Cornillac), her infantile charge Pâquerette (Dimitri Rataud), and the elderly intellectual Lassalle (Philippe Laudenbach). Even in prison, Carrère carries himself with the arrogance of a successful executive, confident that his lawyers and money will get him out of jail. But this confidence shatters when his wife (Félicia Massoni) divorces him, takes his fortune, and bars him from his son Hugo (Paul-Alexandre Bardela).

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Carrère’s bad luck coincides with the discovery of a diary that belonged to Charles Danvers (Geoffrey Carey), a former prisoner whose 1920 escape via black magic – depicted in the movie’s opening – has become the stuff of convict legend. Desperate to punish his wife and to be with his son, Carrère begins studying the book. When Pâquerette accidentally casts a fire spell, the quartet realizes that Danvers’ journal may be the path to freedom.

As these references to black magic suggest, Maléfique takes some dark turns. The diary draws forth the prisoners’ deepest desires, making them manifest in nightmarish ways. Despite these flourishes, Valette, alongside screenwriters Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier, keeps the proceedings subdued, even when dealing with supernatural events.

One of the best examples occurs near the end of the second act when Pâquerette’s eating compulsion gets the best of him. After a particularly stressful moment, the cellmates find different ways to decompress. Carrère pounds on the cell door, Lassalle stars serenely through the window, and Marcus collapses onto her bed. 

But Pâquerette nervously grabs Danvers’s diary and retreats to a corner. As the camera peeks around his bunk, it reveals Pâquerette pushing pages of the diary into his mouth. A harrowing noise on the soundtrack accompanies push-ins on each of the prisoners as they realize too late what Pâquerette has done. His body ascends into the air, arms stuck to his side as if they were pinned by spikes. Faint whimpers creep from his stuffed mouth, but no one, not even Marcus, moves forward to help. 

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In the same way Pâquerette crumpled the diary, the forces protecting the book crumple Pâquerette. His arms twist into knots, a sharp crack sounding as his bones give way. His ankles crack as his feet turn backward. His body bends unnaturally until he folds in half, collapsing to the ground in a heap. 

The cellmates respond to this death with unspoken sorrow. Marcus unfolds Pâquerette and gently carries him back to his bunk, caressing his hair like a mother grieving her child. Carrère and Lassalle say and do nothing, still stunned by what they’ve seen. 

Marcus briefly pushes Lassalle aside to throw the diary through the window. Carrère threatens Lassalle for a moment when the older man reveals that he knows more about Danvers than he previously let on. But the violence is slight and short-lived. Carrère releases Lassalle, and Marcus lets the diary drop. What more can they do? Instead of pushing the trio into hysterics for the sake of obvious drama, Valette lets the characters respond like humans suffering real emotional trauma from what they just watched. 

This calm approach, combined with the film’s single location and small cast, sometimes makes Maléfique feel like a stage play. But despite the grimy setting and green-gray tones, Valette and cinematographer Jean-Marc Bouzou keep the visuals interesting. When the camera isn’t floating through the cell in unbroken takes, clever editing clarifies the relationships between characters. We follow Carrère on his first night as he picks his meal tray up from the floor and carries it alone to his bunk. But then a series of insert shots capture the rituals Marcus and Lassalle use to prepare for their ostentatious dinner. When Carrère joins in the proceedings at the next meal, we understand how the convicts have bonded. No exposition is required.

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Valette can tell a grounded version of a weird story because he’s joined by an outstanding group of actors. The character descriptions seem to call for a cast of scenery-chewers: a vengeance-fueled father, an old man driven to murder by his library, an intellectually disabled man who eats everything (including his six-month-old sister), and a “brute” midway through the gender reassignment process. But these actors treat their characters as humans in extraordinary circumstances. Cornillac makes Marcus’s maternal care for Pâquerette feel congruous with her bullying of the others. Pâquerette has his outbursts, but Rataud never lets him become a caricature. Laroche and Laudenbach make the most of their expressive faces, imbuing their often-silent performances with subtle intensity. 

Maléfique may have a quiet tone but make no mistake: this is not dour realism. The film contains some genuinely bizarre imagery, including an eyeball appearing in a fleshy vagina popping out of a porno magazine collage, and death by reverse aging. Bucking the trend of other horror films of the 2000s, Maléfique uses CG sparingly, choosing practical effects whenever possible. It even gives us a blessed bit of stop-motion animation. The few CG shots don’t look great, but they tend to feel like the unconvincing digital composites favored by David Lynch – unsettling because they are unrealistic.

Maléfique also is not a slow burn movie. At 86 minutes, it doesn’t have the time. But it is exceedingly efficient as it blends pathos with phantasmagoria. The movie’s climax builds with sudden shocks of violence, in which Lassalle castrates Marcus and then meets his grisly doom when letters bubble up across his skin, and his body melds with the book. But it just as quickly moves away from these heated scenes for more serene terror. Lassalle remains calm as he becomes a human book, and Marcus seems to transcend peacefully to a higher realm. Throughout it all, Carrère hardly raises his voice or even registers disgust. 

Why do the characters stay so calm? Why do the rituals take these turns? The movie doesn’t explain. After giving us scenes of walls eating hands, bodies being transformed into unnatural shapes, and blood spilled for arcane rituals, the film also ends by giving Carrère a bloodless fate. These turns may irritate some viewers, but others will appreciate the narrative jumps. They leave the audience just as confused as the movie’s protagonists. 

This mix of Barker-esque magic, body horror, and psychological drama didn’t play with audiences when the New French Extreme was gearing up in Valette’s home country. It also felt out of place among the bland A-Horror remakes dominating American cinemas. But now, moviegoers waiting for the latest from Ari Aster or Robert Eggers would find a lot to love in Maléfique.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. With no presence on streaming services and English-subtitled DVDs long out of print, Maléfique is hard to find without scouring the iffy corners of the internet. You might go that route, but maybe avoid breaking the law or consulting the dark arts in your pursuit. If the movie has any message, it’s that one should stay far away from prison – and magic.

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