Ah, the wonders of M.G. Lewis. Oh sure, Walpole’s 1764 Castle Of Otranto is widely considered the first horror novel, but give me Lewis’s The Monk around 30 years later. I mean, just look:
She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half exposed. The weapon’s point rested upon her left breast: And Oh! that was such a breast! The Moonbeams darting full upon it enabled the Monk to observe its dazzling whiteness. His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb.
Sinful monks, evil nuns, illicit sex, infanticide, The Inquisition, torture, the Devil himself. What’s not to love?
Imagine my excitement when, whilst putting together horror questions for a trivia night I used to run I looked up The Monk and found Le Moine, Dominik Moll’s adaptation. I felt professionally obligated to see 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 4 hours minimum. 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 wandering exorcist cursed to dispel demons until the second coming (y’know, a little Sam and Dean Winchester/Buffy Summers.
Instead, Moll focuses on the most substantial relationships: 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 falls short of 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.
To be fair, once visually presented, descriptive images run the risk of losing their effect on the screen:
Sometimes I felt the bloated Toad, hideous and pampered with the poisonous vapours of the dungeon, dragging his loathsome length along my bosom: Sometimes the quick cold Lizard rouzed me leaving his slimy track upon my face, and entangling itself in the tresses of my wild and matted hair: Often have I at waking found my fingers ringed with the long worms which bred in the corrupted flesh of my Infant.
See what I mean?
I’m not saying Moll should have reached for the 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 so many movies in the demonic evil genre–no contortions, no convulsions, no heads spinning around, nothing like that here. 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 (spoiler warning) 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.
The wonders of M.G. Lewis indeed.