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Friday, July 10, 2009

Tarson's Guide to French Horror

There's no denying - France is a wonderful country. It's fascinating, beautiful, romantic, and filled with a rich culture. But there's more to France than meets the eye - a darker side, and I don't mean Frogs Legs Provencale. It's their film industry - particularly their horror film industry. It's literally booming. Not only domestically, but internationally. Why? Because simply put: the French know how to make a damn good horror film.

There's a lot of horror fans out there, including myself, who now believe that countries like France and Spain are making far better horror films than North America. Sure, every summer we pump out the usual PG-13 fodder, and the big franchise remakes, which is fine, but the real stuff - the kind that makes you scream "WTF?!", is not really being produced here on a studio level. Granted, the American indie horror scene is still going strong, and no doubt, there's some great talent coming out - but the difference is that countries like France embrace their horror on a more mainstream level. In other words, they're not afraid to show it like it is. We can't do that here. Not with our hypocritical censorship laws and the myriad of conservative lobbyists and rights groups. Don't get me wrong, we show violent films here, but there's something more primally inherent in French horror films. They hit a nerve. It's more visceral. Not watered down. It's raw, more real, more horrific. The way it should be.

So here's my best French horror films - and why I think you should watch them. Please note: The bulk of these can be found via NetFlix or Amazon, etc.

Bon Appétit.

1. À l'intérieur (Inside)

Premise: Four months after the death of her husband, a woman on the brink of motherhood is tormented in her home by a strange woman who wants her unborn baby.

"Sarah's new roommate obviously took offense to the bad hair joke."

Scott Weinberg from Cinematical summed up an anology regarding Inside, quite nicely -You know how certain amusement park rides (usually the really scary or herky-jerky ones) have warning signs that say "Look, if you're pregnant enough that you can rest a mug of coffee on top of your belly, then you're definitely not allowed to get on this ride"? I'm paraphrasing there, but already you get my point: Certain rides are too physically strenuous for pregnant women to deal with. Well, I'd like to propose that the ferocious French horror flick À l'intérieur (aka Inside) get one of those signs. Bottom Line: Not since Rosemary's Baby has there been a film to freak out the preggos. I think my water broke three times during À l'intérieur.

There are two wonderful things about this film; the first being that the movie features two strong women as leads; the second is that both of these women have motives that are so focused and believable that you almost don’t know whose side to take. The screenplay for Inside is solid, grounded, believable and most of all captivating. Our two main characters are developed beautifully into women that we both care about and can sympathize with, making every moment that much more suspenseful.

Besides the gore, the centerpiece of this masterpiece is the directing by Maury and Bustillo and breathtaking cinematography by Laurent Bares. The entire film is an emotional ride built simply on the structures and aesthetics of the environment. The rooms are low-lit with an odd haze and a soft yellow look, only something about it is unsettling… maybe it hits almost too close to home? Sarah lives in a typical suburban that many viewers will feel like they can relate to. The way its shot makes the film feel ultra dense; every scene, every moment, every single second is claustrophobic making it hard to breathe.

The Woman (we never do find out her name) is determined to get her hands on Sarah’s baby and will no anything to get it. Once she gets into the house the level of chaos unloads so quickly that there’s not a second to digest. She slashes Sarah across the face and then chases her to the bathroom where she locks herself in. Throughout the film, various people stop by to check on Sarah, which results in a bloodbath of epic proportions. This is quite possibly the most violent, realistic and bloody slasher film ever assembled, ending on such a gut-wrenching note that I'm 100% positive, there’s not a single person who could have walked out of a theater feeling normal.

Why you should watch it: This is one horror film, that only a hardcore fan would appreciate. It makes those Saw films look like The Waltons. While certainly not the most gory film out there, there's never been a movie as graphically distressing as À l'intérieur. It's unrelenting, brutal and stunningly violent. It's also very well-crafted, powerful, creepy and scary on a murky primal level. Essentially the film is about a woman, going through hell to save her unborn child. Watch it if you dare.

2. Frontière(s)

Premise: A gang of young thieves flee Paris during the violent aftermath of a political election, only to hide out at a Hostel run by neo-Nazis.

"Claude's tryout for the Basterds was a hit."

Originally slated to be a part of Lionsgate's 2007 Horrorfest, it managed to get its own separate release, because it was simply so good. And like "Inside" and "Them," it's a horror movie that pulls no punches. Interestingly, it's also set in the midst of the French riots, something that provided a backdrop to "Inside."

The film opens on a crew of armed robbers, who are taking advantage of political riots around the city. When their escape plan turns to shit, they split up and make a break for the country. Keeping in touch via cell, they plan to meet at a hostel later that night.

When two of the robbers arrive at the hostel, it soon becomes apparent that all is not right with the owners. It's run by by two strangely sexy women and their weird brothers. We soon find out that they are indeed, Neo Nazis, and by the time the rest of the gang arrive, it's balls-to-the-wall mayhem. The Nazi family who run the hostel make Leatherface and his family look Amish.

Why you should watch it: Frontier(s) has obvious similarities to "Hostel," but it's much more inspired by "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," with a family of lunatics killing off a bunch of young folks, then having the surviving female over for a psychotic dinner. The film's last third climaxes in the most gut-wrenching gun battle I've ever seen. If you consider The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be a horror classic, then you should really give this a watch. It's a white-knuckle horror film. I also recommend the Unrated Directors Cut.

3. Calvaire (The Ordeal)

Premise: A few days before Christmas, a traveling entertainer breaks down in the remote woods of Liège. He is lead to an old, shuttered inn, where the lonely innkeeper has some serious psychological problems.

"Drinking before skiing. Not a good idea."

Calvaire is a great little horror film. While not as hyped or well known as the films mentioned above, it's strengths lie in it's creepy, dark atmosphere and slow-burn type tension. Calvaire originally premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where it was immediately a horror favorite.

Basically this is the French/Belgian take on the "crazed hillbilly" sub-genre of The Last House on the Left or Deliverance, but in it's mixture of horror and surreal humor, this is closer to something like Roman Polanski's The Tenant. The portrait of an isolated society who lives without women is taken to its logical and often shocking extremes. There's a scene at the local bar which must rank among the strangest and most memorable set pieces in recent years.

The Ordeal works almost too well. With the darkness unrelenting, the fate of our main protaganist is much worse than that of the men of “Deliverance”, in that they have a chance to escape their wilderness, whereas in “Calvaire”, the woods hold a menace in their feeling of isolation and endlessness though the cinematography of Benoit Debie (Irreversible”), who manages to create a terrible beauty in all the outdoor scenes; it’s as if you’re seeing the woods through the eyes of an artist like Francis Bacon! It's very atmospheric and you can almost feel the winter chill and the murky forest this takes place in.

Why you should watch it: This is one of those dark, demented Euro films that evokes a feeling of dread right from the beginning, drawing you in completely, up until an ending that leaves you wondering what previously transpired in that village, and why did Bartel’s wife leave – or did she? And be sure to stick around to the end of the credits – with one final touch, “Calvaire” evokes questions from its audience, with potential nightmarish answers.

4. Ils (Them)

Premise: A young couple, staying in a remote vacation home, are awoken in the middle of the night, to become relentlessly terrorized and stalked, by THEM.

Don't let the premise fool you - this is not the French version of Funny Games. There may be some similarities, but this is more about dread and atmosphere, than blatant torture and violence. Them has no interest in slowing down or wandering around. It offers only the barest hints of character development and it doesn't have time to bother with subplots, red herrings or extraneous characters. It's just a stripped-to-the-bone stalker thriller in which two unfortunate souls spend one hellacious night trying to evade something extraordinarily murderous.

"Dianne embraced the hot new craze of Termite staring."

The co-directors are clearly talented behind the lens. Their "based on actual events" movie delivers a cold, stark and isolated feel that permeates the early horrors and really settles in with some high-end claustrophobia by Act III. The leads are quite strong throughout, even though they're not required to do much more than run around, slam doors and flee for their freakin' lives every 93 seconds. And here's the best part: Them doesn't overstay its welcome. It breezes by and slaps you with some ice water and then scurries right out of the room. And that's a very good thing indeed. Even the quietly chilling finale is handled with creepy restraint.

Why you should watch it: Putting aside the first fifteen minutes or so, the 77-minute Them is basically just one long sequence of stalk, hide chase, stalk, hide, chase. (And I mean that in a good way.) That co-directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud are able to mount so much tension in so little time (while always keeping their antagonist(s) hidden from view) is pretty damn impressive. That they're able to keep that tension running for about 55 consecutive minutes is even more invigorating. Poor Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) scurry through sewers, barricade in bathrooms, race over rooftops and barely stay one step ahead of their vicious pursuers. Even for a seasoned genre nerd like me, Them delivers quite a caffeinated jolt of intensity for an appreciably lengthy period of time.

5. Haute tension

Premise: Two college friends must defend themselves when a mysterious killer invades their quiet getaway home.

"When Acne face-peels go bad."

This is the French horror film that started it all. It announced to the rest of the world that France was here, and they can belt out a damn good horror flick. Naturally, America and the rest of the world stood up and took notice.

High Tension is not exactly a slasher movie in the mold of the Friday the 13th movies. When a kill is made in those films, it is typically done with a stab at creativity and a dose of bad humor. This film belongs to a somewhat older tradition of what I guess you could call ‘torture movies’ like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. The goal of the torture movie is to bring the audience to its knees with depicted sexual battery or emergency-room gore, or both. The first time we see the killer in this movie, he’s receiving oral sex in the cab of his truck from a severed head. To each his own.

There’s hardly any story to speak of. A college girl, Alex, arrives at her country house with a friend, Marie, in tow, and the two have hardly set down bags in the house before a fat trucker barges in and begins killing the occupants, including a toddler. Alex is then kidnapped by the killer, and it’s up to Marie to free her.

Why you should watch it: Whether or not you enjoy the French slasher film “High Tension” will be dictated by exactly 2 things: your ability to withstand copious, relentless doses of brutal violence, and your willingness to ignore the lumbering pink elephant of a final plot twist. Regardless, it's still a credible entry, and should be watched by horror fans who are seeking something beyond the usual "slasher" type fare.

6. Maléfique

Premise: Four prisoners who share a single cell discover the hidden journal of a 'Fountain of Youth'-obsessed serial killer who occupied the cell in the 1920s. Is this journal the secret to their escape? Or is there something much more sinister behind it?

"Not the most ideal place to serve time."

If you're one of those who recognise with pleasure such arcane titles as 'Book of the Dead', 'Book of Eibon' or 'Necronomicon', then you should feel right at home with Malefique, a film which also features an occult tome, one with the power to change the destinies of all involved.

Staged for the most part within a prison cell, and between four or five characters, Malefique has a claustrophobic air entirely suited to its subject matter (as well as the limited budget of the filmmakers). Only at the start and then at the conclusion do we get to leave the confines of the cell, a necessary opening out which only serves to emphasise the doomed, closed-in nature of proceedings elsewhere. More than anything, this is a film about being trapped, either as a victim of your criminal past or of occult events now unfolding. "I'm going to escape," says Carrère at the start of the film, wishing more than anything to be able to rejoin his wife and son. Whether or not he does it will be at a terrible price, and the great irony of the film is that the ultimate form of an 'escape' may not be one a man might imagine.

Why you should watch it: The movie is terrific, but it is not without its share of flaws. Of course, the most notorious one is its the low-budget. Some of the CGI-effects are a bit poor compared to the effective make-up and prosthetics used in other scenes, however, it is never too bad for it. Probably the bad thing about "Maléfique" is that it seems to lose some steam by the end when it focuses on the supernatural black magic rather than in the characters, not too much of a bad thing but the ending may seem weak from that point of view. However, "Maléfique" is another one of those great horror films coming from France, and one that deserves to have more recognition. Valette is definitely a talent to follow as this modest (albeit complex) tale of the supernatural is prove enough of his abilities.

7. Martyrs

Premise: A young woman's quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child, leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into depravity.

"Music execs worried if The Veronicas new album cover was a little too dark for kids."

France. 1970. A little girl named Lucie, who's been missing for over a year, is discovered wandering by the side of a country road. Near catatonic, she can say nothing about what has happened to her. The police soon discover the place in which she's been incarcerated - a disused slaughterhouse. Every indication is that she never once left the empty, freezing room in which she was imprisoned. Filthy, starving, dehydrated, the child's body nonetheless bears no traces of sexual abuse - this was no pedophile abduction, but something far stranger. What happened in that icy room? And how did Lucie escape?

Pascal Laugier brings us a blood-soaked chiller, but it's not quite as over-the-top as Inside. Most of the gore is organic to the development of the story and not placed in there for mere shock value. Laugier, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to have been heavily inspired by Clive Barker. To go into depth would ruin the outcome of the film, but what can be said is that the conventional twists are used as plot points and not meant to be the saving grace of the film.

Why you should watch it: What makes Martyrs work is Laugier's methodical unfolding of the story. What he does is give us a "glimpse" into the world of the torturer(s) so when the protagonist returns to the scene of the crimes, the viewer knows what to expect, which makes them have to endure it with the lead character. Sometimes knowing what's coming is more difficult than watching it unfold. By the end of the film Martyrs becomes immensely uncomfortable, and making it through the final 30 minutes is a tough task. For horror fans, that's good news.

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