By Jess Skinner
No genre in filmdom has proven itself to be as prolific and critically-derided as horror. Applying what is known as the syllogism method of logic, in which a statement can be proven as true if the preceding statements are also true, then a) most movies are crappy, b) most movies are horror movies, thus c) most horror movies are crappy — and by most I mean almost all. If you count yourself as a fan of the genre, you have to have a high appreciation of exploitation, camp/kitsch, and bottom-of-the-well production values. Long ago, some powerful douche decided scary noises that turn out to be cats and serial killers gallivanting around in clown makeup were the most frightening things imaginable, and we movie watchers have been suffering for it ever since.
Since I myself do not have much tolerance for C-grade productions (because I’m pretentious like that), I do not like very many horror movies. However, I count the ones that I do like amongst the most valuable cinematic experiences I have had, precisely because they provide what most of us avoid in our day-to-day routines; that is, fright, fear, panic, apprehension. All of these negative emotions become positive when delivered through the laboratory-like setting of the theatre, but it’s notoriously hard to pull off. So when you find a horror flick you like (a genre orphan), then champion it with great ferocity, at the expense of seeming like a lunatic to your social circle.
No one makes horror movies these days like the French. Filmmakers from the land of mimes and race riots have effectively monopolized the market on psychological disaster movies, in which civility and bliss are bludgeoned by domestic intrusion. All of the films I discuss here share a weariness towards the unknown, personified by the malicious individual whose explicable motives fall to the side of their pathological brutality. Xenophobia be damned; from these perspectives you’d be advised to barricade your door to any stranger, let alone take candy from them.
I would be hard-pressed to elaborate on where this consistent approach to horror comes from, or why, more specifically, few of the modern French works that have been distributed internationally contain fantastical elements. No monsters, no ghosts. These examples have neither the banality of American horror movies, nor the dual obsessions of technology and the spiritual realm of the Japanese. They are, in a relative sense, striving for realism. As I continue to elaborate in no particular order.
In David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Ils (Them) (2006), an intellectual couple settles down for a normal night of dinner and television. After heading upstairs for bed, the set suddenly turns back on. Then the lights go out. Then the phones calls start…you get the idea. Their abode is under attack by a mischievous and malicious group of something. There are minimal clues as to the nature of what exactly “they” are before the curtain is lifted in the climax; though the reveal comes eventually, the build-up is almost unbearably exacting. Some may find it a cheat, if you’re looking for garish effects or make-up, that is. If you can find horror in simplicity, Ils is one of the most effective little thrillers of our time.
The directors pace their slim 74 minutes to a rhythm of chase and failure, speed and claustrophobia. We follow Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) almost every step of the way in their ordeal, and through this Ils remains consciously free of superfluity. You may not get what you expect, as a viewer, but let it cook in your brain for a while and your eventual examination may improve upon any immediate reaction.
Simplicity finds no such love in Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003). It’s explicitness is already legendary (and was cut for American distribution). Notably strong and intelligent heroine Marie (Cecile de France) chases a truck-driver (Philippe Nahon) who murdered her family across the highways, in a game of cat-and-mouse that provides something like an even playing field, for once.
Like Aja’s criminally misunderstood Hills Have Eyes remake, Haute Tension is a complete exercise in style so superficially dedicated, that it almost pulls off a firm recommendation — until it hits the brakes before the third act and does a complete turnaround on everything that has come before. The asinine plot twist is almost as notorious as the gore; it comes close to making Shyamalan’s The Village seem sensible. Both of these aspects nudge it in the direction of Americanized taste, so it’s a shame it had to be neutered for their eyes.
À l’intérieur (2007) (or Inside, as it has been blandly translated) concerns itself of course with the proverbial lonely house, but additionally with the interior of the womb; widowed protagonist Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is about to give birth on Christmas, but a mystery woman (the credits call the character “La Femme”) will have none of that. She insists on spoiling the season with activity that reaches far below jolly.
Before it gets down to the ooey-gooey details (whatever happened to subtle suggestion?), À l’intérieur sets up a brooding back-story. Sarah is a photographer on the verge of delivering her first child, sometime after the father was killed in an auto accident. She is understandably depressed, and moodily rejects the attention of her mother and editor. In the evening she retires to the isolated comfort of her home until La Femme (Beatrice Dalle) comes a-tapping at her chamber door. Hidden in shadow, this woman seems to know much about the pregnancy. Too much. Sarah is spooked, and that’s only the beginning. From there, À l’intérieur uproots visuals and narrative from any perceivable departure point and keeps on running.
When the motives and methods of La Femme become increasingly clear, the film abandons logic and tact and slams headfirst into a brick wall of depraved violence. To say it goes too far would be selling it short; La Femme wants Sarah’s baby, and her passion goes into the red zone of taste and then further still. It’s sheer admirable quality lies in its cleverly successive game of swapping the upper hand.
Shamelessly leaving their characters to die in the proverbial bear trap is where films like Hostel fail, but Inside is a battle, between good and evil, between poor Sarah and the stranger. Inside her house, she fights the good fight for 80 minutes, and there is no abandonment of suspense in favour of shock to speak of. This flick is successful because — despite its thoroughly modern approach to violence — it has that old fashioned hero vs. villain showdown. To elaborate on the plot would be to spoil the game; suffice to say Inside works effectively on its own terms, plunging the two main characters farther into hell than any human being could be imagined to go. See it with an audience – their cheers and audible signals of shock make the whole thing worthwhile.
At 105 minutes Frontier(s) (2008) is not quite as lean but no less mean; instead of the solo Femme we get a whole clan of Nazi cannibals. You read that right, but the flick is no grindhouse garbage. Director Xavier Gens may have the steady hand of an epileptic on top of a washing machine, but he has the practical confidence to make his horror show elegant. Yasmine (Karina Testa) and a small pack of lowly criminals, after looting during a Parisian riot, hole up in a seedy motel on the side of the road. You know the kind of motel, where no human being would ever consider staying if they were not in a horror movie that required it. Like Haute Tension, Gens’ films is a survival story of severe bodily harm, and achieves success through the eccentric, gruesome imagination that fuels its images.
Imagination, style, and a keen sense of pace are all present in these films, and each element provides examples of the genre that, in this 21st century age of brutality over intelligence, prove miraculous. No nation has proven itself more capable of producing quality scares, and finding horror where audiences would least like it to reach them — in your homes and gardens.