Collins’ Crypt: Vive La French Horror!

Brian delves into the divisive world of French horror. 

This Friday, Anchor Bay will release The Divide into theaters unrated, a nice bonus for the film, which first screened at last year’s Comic Con to an audience that was "divided" (I had to do it) between loving and hating it. But that should be expected, as the director is none other than Xavier Gens, a French filmmaker who first hit our radar with his graphically violent Frontiere(s) a few years back. There was a similar difference of opinion on that film, as well as several other horror flicks of the past few years that hailed from France, which has seemingly replaced Japan and Korea as America’s favorite country to ransack for imported horror films and directors. Most of the films I’m about to discuss are uncompromising when it comes to their graphic violence, and share a grim or even nihilistic approach to simple stories – in other words, they’re not exactly “Screen Gems Horror” films. These films are not something you watch while doing laundry and say "Eh, it was OK" - love or hate, they always spark a strong reaction in their viewers.

The presence of French horror in the US more or less started with High Tension (aka Haute Tension or Switchblade Romance) in 2005, back when Lionsgate was still specializing in picking up orphaned movies from other studios (Dogma and House Of 1000 Corpses being the most prominent examples) or daring films that no one else wanted to touch (like Fahrenheit 9/11), and producing fewer films on their own. And they also distributed several foreign films in the US, such as Irreversible and the Taxi series, but High Tension was the first that netted a wide release – 1300 screens as opposed to say, 35 at most for Irreversible. As with Italian horror films released in the States, the trailer conveniently skipped over the fact that most of the movie was in French (instead of a full dub, it was a mix of French and English, for reasons I can no longer recall), and was memorably set to Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar”. It was a terrific trailer (better than the French one, in fact), but I remember at least one guy walking out of my screening once it became clear that he’d have to read some of it.

(Note – this guy was NOT the man who brought in his 4-5ish daughter. She was remarkably well behaved, but WHAT THE FUCK?)

As with a certain genre film in theaters now, High Tension’s ending pissed just about everyone off, including me – though I’ve come around on it over the years. But unfortunately it wasn’t met with Devil Inside’s record grosses, and thus future foreign horror – especially ones with the extreme violence of High Tension – wouldn’t be treated to such wide exposure. However, director Alexandre Aja has been working steadily since, helming three remakes in a row: Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors (yes, that was a remake too), and Piranha, while also producing/co-writing the original P2 with Tension co-star Franck Khalfoun. It’s a shame he hasn’t tried out something a little more original in the nearly 10 years since shooting High Tension (it was first released in 2003) – he’s currently producing a remake of Maniac, sigh – but he’s still considered a genre heavyweight, even inducted into the “Splat Pack” along with folks like Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Darren Bousman. And more importantly, it helped kick off a heightened awareness of French horror here in the US.

The next one to make a splash was Gens with Frontiere(s), his feature debut. Co-produced by Luc Besson, the film didn’t have as memorable a story as Tension or some of the other French flicks that followed – in fact the script (by Gens himself – to date his only feature writing credit) borrowed heavily from popular US fare like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hills Have Eyes, presenting a group of youngsters who end up in the hands of a group of redneck murdering types. But it was an exciting, well-made film, which is probably why Gens continued to get work as a director instead of a screenwriter. He followed it pretty quickly with Hitman, an OK action flick based on the video game and starring a bald Tim Olyphant (Vin Diesel was the original choice – what a wonderfully random swap that is). As with Frontiere(s), Gens’ considerable work behind the camera made up for the script issues (exacerbated by FOX’s usual meddling in post-production), but he must not have been a fan of working within the studio system. After Hitman (which actually did pretty well worldwide) he went back to France and made a short film, and was then attached to the independently produced The Divide.

The film boasts a genre friendly cast (Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Hostel 2’s Lauren German, among others) and an intriguing post-apocalyptic scenario in which our main characters are trapped in the basement of a New York apartment building after a nuclear blast decimates the city. And despite the single location “trapping," Gens continues to impress with his visual style, seemingly getting his camera into every nook and cranny in the three room basement and directing the limited action with his usual flair (the opening blast sequence is terrific, in fact). Unfortunately, as with his other films, the script leaves much to be desired – hopefully someday he will find a story that is deserving of his considerable visual strengths.

Gens isn’t the only one who was courted by the studios, but at least he got to get SOMETHING made there. The same can’t be said of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, who were involved with both the Hellraiser remake and a Halloween sequel at one point or another. But that’s Dimension for you; micro-managing and enforcing certain elements on filmmakers until they finally just walk away (or get fired for saying “no”). Their calling card was Inside, which Dimension picked up for US home video release for their Dimension Extreme label after playing a few festivals here. One of my favorite horror films of the decade, Inside is must-see viewing for anyone who can stomach the potentially off-putting subject matter. Our heroine is about 12 seconds away from giving birth as the movie begins, and she’ll be raising the child alone due to a recent tragedy that took the life of her husband. Making matters worse, “The Woman” (Beatrice Dalle) shows up outside her door and demands to get in – and it’s clear she’s got less than pleasant plans for Sarah and the baby. What follows is a terrific blend of home invasion and slasher film, with enough blood to fill a dozen Friday the 13th sequels and more than a couple incredibly unnerving and tense moments, along with one of the most horrific shock kills in recent memory. There are few movies from the 00s that I would almost DEMAND any self-respecting horror fan check out; Inside is not only one of them - it’s pretty close to the top of the list.

Unfortunately my dream of seeing the pair make a big splash here like Aja did hasn’t exactly panned out; after futzing around with the Weinsteins for a while the two went back to France and made Livid, a horror-fantasy mix that blends familiar motifs of Carpenter, Argento, and Del Toro into a haunted house type narrative. It’s not quite as successful as Inside, but when it works it’s terrific, and if this is their “sophomore slump” then I think we can expect much greatness from them in the years to come. Whether they’ll ever get as “mainstream” as the others, I don’t know – but I’d rather they were doing what they wanted in their home country than coming here and wasting their time on a remake/reboot that will just be compromised later on anyway.

Another pair that struck out in the US was David Moreau and Xavier Palud, who were behind the taut home invasion flick Them (aka Ils). They sort of got doubly screwed – not only did a very similar American film (The Strangers) come along right around the same time their film hit DVD in the US, but their work on the film got them assigned to Lionsgate’s The Eye remake, which was re-edited and reshot without them from what I understand. It seems the pair may have even split up – their subsequent IMDb credits are solo ventures. While their body of work is hard to judge considering it’s just two movies, one of which was heavily compromised, it seems they certainly deserve better. I didn’t love Ils as much as some of my peers, but it was quite stylish, and the pair made a lot of out of almost nothing – the film had almost no dialogue and only two characters (not counting the killers), but it delivered where it mattered on a very low budget – imagine what they could do with some resources and a more trustworthy studio behind them?

The most notorious may be Martyrs, however. Writer/director Pascal Laugier starts off his film with some pretty shocking murders – and it just gets darker (and more violent) from there. Oddly, it actually has one of the more interesting plots of all the films mentioned here, but you can be forgiven for turning the movie off before all of the pieces fall into place. In five years of daily horror watching I’ve never felt so GUILTY for watching the movie at home – I almost wanted to apologize to my neighbors and explain that the non-stop anguished screams of a woman being tortured was just some crazy French movie. Laugier was also involved with the Hellraiser remake for a while, but like Bustillo and Maury he too has moved on; he is currently in post on a film called The Tall Man, which stars Jessica Biel and young horror regular Jodelle Ferland, which sounds like some sort of Darkness Falls-esque tale about an entity that kidnaps children. However I have confidence that Laugier (who also wrote the script) will bring a little more to the table than that.

There have been other efforts worth mentioning – Kim Chapiron’s utterly batshit Sheitan (starring Vincent Cassel in one of his most gonzo performances) and the Belgium The Ordeal (aka Calvaire) are definite treats for those who like things a little more offbeat, and the recent The Pack from first-timer Franck Richard more or less successfully blends a Frontiere(s) type setup with some supernatural elements (and boasts a wonderful heroic turn from Philippe Nahon, who was the killer in High Tension). There’s also Mutants from David Morlet, a moody, character driven take on the usual “hold up in an isolated place and ward off zombies” plot, as well as The Horde, which is probably the most outright “fun” French horror flick I’ve seen, taking cues from Romero as well as Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Unfortunately, with these films all going direct to DVD in the States and/or given “art house” releases, they get lost in the shuffle. Frontiere(s) lucked out with a slot in the once high profile After Dark Horrorfest, but this “series” has been canceled, as far as I can tell, which means that the next one won’t get that sort of exposure. And you can sure as hell bet that none of these movies will appear in a Redbox (and if so they will be heavily truncated – Inside was trimmed of a whopping SEVEN minutes for its “rated” release).

And thus, hopefully I’ve opened your eyes to a title or two here - if I've done my job, your Netflix queue (or an Amazon page!) should be open on another tab by now. And even if I didn’t care much for it,The Divide is something that will be quite loved by some (one of my fellow writers at Bloody Disgusting said it was his favorite film of the year, in fact), and Anchor Bay is doing the genre a solid by putting it out UNRATED in theaters this weekend. Thus, I urge you to make up your own mind if it’s in your area. Not only are independent horror films finding fewer and fewer chances to play theatrically in the US, but maybe if the film does well enough, guys like Gens won’t have as much trouble seeing films all the way to release. These guys are all intelligent, interesting filmmakers who don’t shy away from the genre, and many even have a strong visual style – something that is entirely lacking in the guys whose names you see directing studio horror films over the past couple years (Nelson McCormick, anyone?). Gens and the others actually bring something to the table, and make horror films that aren’t forgotten by the time you get home from the theater – a producer who wants to make a quality horror film should be handing out blank checks to each of them.

P.S. – this is not meant to be exhaustive; if I have overlooked a significant entry from the past 5-6 years or so, feel free to point it out below! It may be an honest oversight, but perhaps I have legitimately missed something that I need to see!