When the chance for a chat with one of Belgium’s finest directors, Harry Kümel, presented itself during the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) 2010, you can be sure that Picturenose’s James Drew (JD) didn’t miss his opportunity to meet the man behind two of the most acclaimed cult horror/sci-fi/fantasy features ever made, Les lèvres rouges (Daughters of Darkness) (1971) and Malpertuis (The Legend of Doom House) (1971).
Born in Antwerp, Harry Kümel, 70, is a director who first became world-acclaimed with his sensual, erotic and really quite scary 1971 vampire feature Les lèvres rouges starring Delphine Seyrig, which became a cult hit in Europe and the United States. Released the same year was Malpertuis, which is widely considered as being Kümel’s masterpiece – adapted from the novel by Jean Ray, it featured a sadly ageing Orson Welles as Cassavius, a dying warlock who has managed to capture and keep the remaining Greek gods (trapped inside the ‘skins’ of ordinary Flemish citizens) in his fading mansion, Malpertuis. A remarkable blend of genres, the film has (not unlike Kümel himself) aged very well, hence his continuing support (and jury duty) at festivals such as BIFFF.
JD: So, Harry, is a large portion of your time ancillary to your work as a director now spent attending festivals such as BIFFF?
HK: “No, actually, in general I don’t like that kind of thing [laughs]. When I was very much younger, I used to attend festivals such as Cannes, but I quickly grew tired of the culture – BIFFF, however, is different, it’s not so pretentious. A very good friend of mine [Le dîner de cons (The Dinner Game) (1998)] director Francis Weber once said to me: ‘We all love cinema, but we detest the business of cinema.'”
You made two such pivotal fantasy films, Daughters of Darkness and Malpertuis very near the beginning of your career – are the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres still very important to you?
“Not especially – it’s coincidence that those two films came one after the other, the first one was more of a period piece, and friends of mine wanted to make small films that weren’t going to cost very much but would have international appeal, and genre films are always the cheapest films to make, so that was my choice. Since the artistic ingredients in the film are still valid today, namely sex, violence and blood and horror – if you combine these things, then as now, you are likely to have success, so that was the plan, and I looked for subject matter to fit these elements around, and these two films were made back to back. That’s why I have this reputation, but I have never particularly affiliated myself to these genres. The problem with genre films also is that there is a tendency for them to not be so well made – there are of course exceptions, such as with the work of directors such as Mario Bava, but even then the work tends to remain the realm of aesthetics. On the other hand, I do not think the genres are minor subjects, just that minor movies are frequently made in the genres.”
I only saw Malpertuis myself for the first time recently, when a remastered print was being screened in Liège. I was knocked out by its blend of cinematic and artistic concepts – as is increasingly the case with Hollywood these days, do you not feel there is a good chance that it will be remade?
“Well, it would be wonderful to remake it, because now of course we have the technological means to do things onscreen that we couldn’t do at that time, we could of course transform everything with CGI effects, you know, but I think that a new director might become obsessed with using such technology, and the resulting film would suffer for that. When I made the film, we had to find a wide range of inventive solutions for our visual problems, because we had so little means, and I think it is from such challenges, such difficulties, a certain sense of style was accentuated.”
I have to ask – Orson Welles. Tell us how it was.
“I got on with Orson very well in social life, but on set he was a very, very difficult person to work with. There was a sadness too about everything with Orson, there was the real sense that he just didn’t understand how the modern cinema of the time worked – he had an aura about him, and the problem was that in the beginning I thought I would be able to talk with him about shots and so on, but this just wasn’t the case. There was one scene I was doing that involved the star Michel Bouquet, who was at first absolutely ga-ga at the chance to work with Orson, but then I made the mistake of describing the scene in question to Orson as “Michel’s scene”. Oh dear. Seventeen takes later, after Orson was finally convinced that I had captured him as the central figure in the scene, we got a cut that Welles liked. Still today, Bouquet cannot say Welles’ name without getting angry – Orson was just like a child. A pity, but I am still very glad that I was able to work with him.”
As Picturenose is very glad to have had the chance to speak with you – thank you very much, Harry.