“Belphegor: Phantom of the Louvre” – A.J. Hakari

It stands to reason that in the 100-plus years filmmaking has existed, someone should’ve made a great museum movie by now. All too often do these hallowed halls, filled with the wisdom of the ages, play host to far less interesting shenanigans, despite the surplus of available material. Still, I suppose it’s best to make do with what’s out there, and it’s with this reluctant optimism in mind that I approached the French chiller Belphegor: Phantom of the Louvre. A few good-natured thrills are all I sought, but while things started off on a sturdy note, I soon found myself bored into submission, thanks mostly to a nonsensical story rendered even more incoherent by some of the worst editing known to horror.

Comprising one part The Da Vinci Code and one part The Mummy, Belphegor centers on the discovery of a perfectly preserved mummy in the world-famous Louvre Museum. Having spent decades in storage, current administrators set about cracking the mystery of the corpse’s true identity, unaware that its restless spirit has also been let loose. The apparition takes possession of Lisa (Sophie Marceau), a woman living adjacent to the Louvre still recovering from her grandmother’s death. The phantom proceeds to force Lisa to pilfer various artifacts from the museum and murder the occasional guard in a bid to ensure its safe passage to the underworld. But it’s only a matter of time before Lisa is driven mad by the spirit inside her, leaving it up to her new boyfriend (Frédéric Diefenthal) and an intrepid inspector (Michel Serrault) to free her from its otherworldly grasp before she pays the price.

They say you can’t keep a B-movie down, but Belphegor is practically begging you to put two between its eyes. It doesn’t seem that complicated of a flick to handle, but so staggering are the levels of incompetence at play, you wonder if the filmmakers had any clue which way to point the camera. The set-up is solid enough: using modern-day actors and technology, make a movie that pays homage to the golden age of classic horror. Director Jean-Paul Salomé effectively recreates the aura of an old-timey thriller, right down to the masked marauder seemingly spirited away from the Universal backlot. The filmmakers have the added advantage of getting to play around in the Louvre itself, and if they didn’t, then the production design team deserves a medal. So with so much going for it, why did Belphegor suddenly turn to merde? The chief culprit is the source material, which includes a novel and previous TV mini-series. Apparently, Salomé expects viewers to have done some reading, for who or what “Belphegor” actually is remains up for grabs. The name is often used in reference to the mummy, but when our incorporeal chum is established as a separate entity, Salomé wastes no time in cranking the confusion up to 11.

But Belphegor’s storytelling shortcomings pale in comparison to its absolutely horrendous editing. It’s fine for the first half-hour or so, but in very short order, the film finds itself launching headfirst into scenes before others have ended. The effect is nothing short of catastrophic, the atmosphere left feeling more choppy and irritating than ominous and unsettling. Subplots whiz by without leaving the slightest impact, characters duck out as quickly as they pop in, and to top it all off, the whole fine mess ends with the anticlimax to end all anticlimaxes. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if the cast and crew kept putting their best foot forward, but they too seem to recognize the train wreck they’re on and do their best to vamoose the caboose before it derails. It’s a stretch to call the acting adequate, for that would mean inferring that even some effort was involved. The performers do just enough to barely get by, from the lovely Marceau (pulling a low-rent Linda Blair) to Diefenthal, as the obligatory dense love interest. Serrault (he of La Cage aux Folles fame) fares alright, but even he rushes through chunks of dialogue like he can’t wait to cash his paycheck.

Done well, Belphegor: Phantom of the Louvre could’ve served American moviegoers as a neat introduction to foreign cinema. There are enough familiar elements at work so that nothing could be lost in translation, what with horror being a genre you need not subtitles to enjoy. But these foolishly optimistic dreams are for another time, as Belphegor is a steaming pile of supernatural slop, a film bursting at the seams with potential but lacking the direction and know-how to make it all work.

Rating: ★½☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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