Ah, the wonders of M.G. Lewis. Oh sure, Walpole’s 1764 Castle Of Otranto is considered the first horror novel, but give me Lewis’s The Monk nearly 30 years later. Sinful monks, evil nuns, illicit sex, infanticide, The Inquisition, torture, and The Devil himself.
What’s not to love?
So imagine my excitement when, whilst putting together horror questions for a trivia night I run at Bearded Bird Brewing (every Sunday at 4 he said shamelessly), I looked up The Monk and found Le Moine, Dominik Moll’s film adaptation. Clearly, I had a professional obligation to watch it.
It’s important to point out that Moll plays pretty fast and loose with the source material. On one hand, rightly so. To incorporate every one of the novel’s myriad subplots would require a good four hours. At 100 minutes, Le Moine can’t possibly do this.
On the other hand, this means there is some great stuff that doesn’t make it in, not the least of which being an evil spirit called The Bleeding Nun and a cursed Jew whose fate is to dispel demons, not unlike Sam and Dean Winchester or Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Instead, Moll focuses on the most substantial: Ambrosio (Vincent Cassell) and Valerio/Matilda (Déborah François), Ambrosio and Antonia )Joséphine Japy) , and, to lesser extent, Antonia and Lorenzo (Frédéric Noaille).
As an infant, Ambrosio was left on the doorstep of a monastery and brought up to be a monk. As the film opens, he is intensely devout but, having lived an entirely monastic existence, a bit out of touch with emotion and the realities of the outside world.
This changes with the arrival of Valerio, a young, masked novice who has arrived specifically to learn at the feet of Ambrosio. One night, Valerio intercepts Ambrosio’s walk in his rose garden and reveals himself as Matilda.
This forces Ambrosio to expel her from the monastery. She pleads for a rose to take away, and as he retrieves one, Ambrosio is bitten by a centipede. Matilda heals him that night, seducing him in the process, and we’re off to the races.
Sadly, much of the film doesn’t hold up to what could have become quite a tour de force. The seductions are fairly predictable, as are their results, and much of the bombastic nature of the source material is substantially muted. I’m not saying Moll should have reached for the bombastic level of Ken Russell’s The Devils, and the film does come literally full circle in an extremely satisfying and clever manner.
That said, it’s interesting that the supernatural elements are also muted and not played to the level used by most movies in the demonic evil genre. There are no contortions, no convulsions, no heads spinning around, nothing like that.
Instead, the supernatural is simple, almost folkloric, and helps infuse an already atmospheric story with an even creepier, more sinister undercurrent. If there’s one unfortunate result, it’s that Moll cuts the novel’s over-the-top Gothic ending in which Lucifer sinks his talons into Ambrosio’s scalp, hoists him into to the sky, then dashes him on the jagged rocks below where it takes him six days to die.
Like I said, ah, the wonders of M.G. Lewis.