Every October I like to do a bit of a deep dive into a horror sub-genre I feel I haven’t sufficiently explored and increasingly my explorations have been geographic in nature. I’ve taken a look at Japanese horror films, English horror films, Italian horror films, as well as Australian horror films in the past and this year I’m going to be tackling a bit of national horror cinema I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while: French horror. Specifically I’m looking at a wave of horror films that were made in France during the first decade called “The New French Extremity,” a term that some extend to films like Catherine Breillat’s Romance that are more sexual than violent but for my purposes we’re looking specifically at a handful of horror movies that were made around the first decade of the new millennium and have kind of been viewed as a Gallic response to the “torture porn” movies that were coming out of Hollywood at the time as well as some of the more extreme stuff coming out of Asia. Some of these movies are believed to be rather difficult to watch but are nonetheless considered to be rather important examples from the fringes of the horror genre made during a time when people were indulging that genre’s extremes.
High Tension (2003)
The first of the “French Extremity” movies I’ll be looking at is Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (known as Switchblade Romance in some markets), which is by far the most mainstream of the movies I’ll be looking at and could be said to simply fit in with the likes of Saw and Hostel rather than acting as a more extreme counterpart. In fact Lionsgate thought as much and gave the film a wide release, albeit in a dubbed and edited format, where it made about three and a half millions dollars. That’s not a great take, but it’s certainly more than some of these other movies which I don’t think even got limited theatrical releases stateside and mostly gained their reputations through festival screenings and “unrated” DVD releases. Still that crappy dubbed cut lingers so if you’re trying to watch this movie today be careful what version you’re paying for because some of these streaming services have not taken care to host the right version. Anyway, the film’s release does seemed to have helped get some future extreme French horror movies get made and it was also considered enough of a success to get Aja an inconsistent if mostly steady career as a horror filmmaker in Hollywood but critically the movie was mostly savaged, including with a memorable one star pan by Roger Ebert, whose review began “The philosopher Thomas Hobbes tells us life can be ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ So is this movie.”
To the film’s credit I do think it deserves a little better than Ebert (who was never a fan of the “dead teenager movies”) was ever going to give it. Aja is a slick filmmaker; I don’t know if he got his start in music videos but his film certainly makes it look like he did, and he and his cinematographer Maxime Alexandre give the film a nice and well produced look. His star, Cécile de France, is also pretty well suited to be the protagonist of a film like this. She’s not some stock blonde “nice girl” but she’s dressed in tight clothing throughout the film and is frankly rather sexy in an alternative girl kind of way and is fun to watch throughout. Then of course there’s the film’s gore, which isn’t exactly novel for most of the film (lots of throat slitting) but it is certainly rather “in your face” in nature and you can tell Aja made this thing without worrying too much what the MPAA would think about the film. There isn’t necessarily anything here that a seasoned horror fan will say they’ve never seen before but I would suspect it would be shocking to someone who had never heard the name “Lucio Fulci” and hadn’t yet been completely corrupted by all the Saw and Hostel sequels that were to come.
Having said all that, one should not mistake this for some sort of uniquely sophisticated horror movie just because it’s French because in many ways it’s just an iteration on the horror formulas we’ve seen before. The first third or so is very much a home invasion slasher movie which certainly doesn’t appear to have much novelty to it. Our protagonist is not very fleshed out and neither are the soon-to-be-victims and the killer seems quite boring as well; he doesn’t have any kind of mask to make him stand out and his signature weapon (a straight razor) is not very interesting. He’s just a largeish middle aged dude whose severely lacking in novelty. The second half is a bit more of a chase movie of sorts, a bit like Duel I guess you could say but still nothing too special. And of course all of this is leading up to a twist ending which is just completely inane. Full disclosure this ending was spoiled for me around the time the film was released so some of its impact may have been blunted, but I doubt it because it’s something that does not make a lick of sense in terms of the actual story and it’s not interesting thematically and is plainly derivative of similar endings that several other movies around this time also had. So, between all that there isn’t really a whole lot about High Tension that really makes it stand out in the grand scheme of horror history but I also can’t quite hate on it. It is best not to imbue this thing with too much baggage and instead look at it as a very commercial piece of genre cinema that’s better made than something like Friday the 13th but not necessarily much smarter.
**1/2 out of Five
The movie Them (Ils) is probably the least famous of the five movies in my French Extremity crash course, in fact I don’t even remember hearing about it around the time it actually came out. The first time I heard about it was two years later when Universal released a not dissimilar movie called The Strangers, which I heard some people call a straight-up ripoff of this earlier French film. I’m not sure that accusation is entirely fair, in part because Them is such a simple movie that it can really be said to be novel enough to be stolen and the few points of novelty here (mainly the last twenty minutes and the identity of the killers) are not carried over to that movie. The film has a very basic premise: a French couple are loving in a large house in Romania (we get a very brief scene establishing that she works in a French immersion school there) and one night a group of assailants just attack the house and the couple must find a way to survive. That’s kind of it, it’s the home invasion movie stripped down to its absolutely basic essentials. Now, stripping something down can be viewed as desirable if what you’re doing is cutting away whatever bullshit has pushed a given film genre into an undesirable direction, but if you strip things down too far you run the risk of basically making a movie that’s devoid of any kind of flavor that is going to make it stand out and be memorable, and I’d say this movie comes pretty close to that latter problem.
There’s just not a lot to this couple and the killers aren’t really stalking them in an overly novel way. This movie gets lumped in with the “New French Extremity” movement a lot but I’d hardly call it “extreme” at all outside of its basic nihilism. There’s hardly any on screen gore in it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s certainly been misclassified from time to time. I would also say that this is kind of an ugly film just in terms of cinematography. Say what you will about High Tension but it was nothing if not slick, but this movie was shot on digital cameras back when digital cameras were still looked decidedly worse than film and the whole movie just kind of looks cheap as a result. If you’re going to make a movie like this which is just supposed to operate on horror fundamentals the least you can do is try to make sure it’s pretty, or make it lough rough in more of a purposeful way. So, there are clear drawbacks here but there are also some legitimately good ideas to be found in the movie. The final act when the couple escapes the house and is pursued in the woods has a lot going for it, particularly when the killers can kind of only be seen as flashlights in the distance, and the last scene where the woman is being chased also works pretty well leading up to a strong final image before the coda. There’s also a twist involving the identities of the killers which is somewhat interesting if not really explored to its full potential. So if you’re a horror movie looking to dig pretty deep in the back catalog this may be an interesting watch but there’s just not enough here to make it really stand out.
*** out of Five
Now this is closer to what I was expecting from the “New French Extremity!” Like Them before it the film Inside is at its core a home invasion film but this isn’t anyone’s idea of “minimalism,” this is a movie where the plasma really flows. The film looks at a woman who is massively pregnant but who is in mourning because her baby’s father was recently killed in a car accident that she survived. She’s now “overdue” but the night before she’s scheduled to go into induced labor a woman breaks into her home with a scissors and tries to cut into her stomach. She escapes from this initial attack and locks herself into the bathroom, beginning a standoff that others will soon be drawn into. The killer woman appears to be trying to steal this baby right out of our protagonist’s womb, which is certainly grotesque in concept and I must say I’ve got to question this homicidal maniac’s logic a bit here; I’m not an expert on the topic but I suspect children are generally easier to kidnap after they’ve been born. Regardless, the pregnancy ultimately turns out to be move of a motivating factor than a driving force in the film’s action and the fact that she’s with child does not really impede her movements too dramatically in the movie.
The film does however incorporate a device in which we periodically cut to a CGI representation of this child in the womb, which mostly serves as a bit of a distraction and frankly just doesn’t look very good as they clearly don’t have the world’s biggest budget to work with. I also didn’t care much for the film’s cinematography, which looked a little better than the borderline consumer-grade photography in Them but which does nonetheless look like some not great digital photography. Perhaps one day we’re just going to see this era’s digital photography with the same kind of charm we view grainy film prints, but I doubt it. Still slick photography was never really what a movie like this was supposed to be about, it’s instead about making a grimy splatter movie and man is there a lot of splatter here. By the end the film’s body count becomes fairly high despite essentially taking place in a handful of rooms in a single house and some of these kills are outlandish. The R-rated cut of this thing that was released to Blockbuster video had a full seven minutes cut out of it, and I’m not really sure what the point would be of seeing that version. This is a movie that largely seems to exist to be the ultimate in nasty home invasion cinema and nasty it certainly is.
***1/2 out of Five
On October 27th 2005 Parisian police chased down a group of teenagers of color who were alleged to have broken into a construction site, two of those teenagers tried to hide in an electrical substation and were killed by electrocution. This was said to have been a spark in a powder keg of resentment over the way people of color are treated in France and what followed were three weeks of rioting and unrest through Paris and its suburbs, becoming one of that decade’s most prominent events in France and is of course hardly something unfamiliar to the rest of the Western World to this day. Those events were briefly referenced in the film Inside but much more intrinsically influenced another bit of New French Extremity released that year called Frontier(s). Directed by a guy named Xavier Gens, the film is set in a near future in which France is on the verge of electing a quasi-fascist president as riots break out in much of the city. The film focuses on a group of mostly Arab-French youths who are looking to escape the chaos of the city and head to Amsterdam but first attempt to gets some cash from a robbery which goes wrong and leaves one of the youths dead and his pregnant girlfriend in mourning. They do proceed with the plan however and head to a hotel in the countryside where they plan to reunite, but little do they know that this hotel is run by violent neo-nazis who will be turning this into a night of unmitigated horror.
I’m not exactly sure what this film’s title, including it’s odd plural in parentheses thing, is supposed to be all about. Otherwise the movie isn’t exactly subtle and is somewhat bold in using racial conflict as an element in its horror but I don’t think it has anything terribly interesting to say on the subject and ultimately it feels more exploitative than enlightening. Really this is more like a take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the city people driving through the countryside and then being trapped by what are essentially the French equivalent of a family of violent killer rednecks. It’s a concept that does at least have potential but, to be frank, this Xavier Gens guy seems like a total hack. Regrettable filming formats of the 2000s have been something of a running theme in this crash course but unlike Them and Inside this film does not have early digital cameras to blame for its look; it was filmed on tried and true 35mm but it has the worst kind of “MTV” look imaginable. Motion in several scenes is intentionally jittery and color filters are extreme and most of the chosen camera angles are completely unflattering and the editing borders on the incompetent. I was not surprised to learn that Gens almost immediately went to Hollywood and made dreck like the 2007 Hitman and has basically been in the direct-to-video space since then. The movie just looks horrible and beyond that its characters are bland and its scenario never comes together. The film is indeed quite gory so if you are a connoisseur of the bloodletting and care about nothing else go ahead and give this a look but this is not some kind of bold unmissable vision by any means.
*1/2 out of Five
Of all the films in my New French Extremity crash course the one I’ve been most anticipating, both for good and ill, was the last of the five: Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs. While a lot of the other movies here have faded with time this one still gets referenced pretty widely, but often not for its quality so much as for its infamy as some view it as something of an endurance test; a film you challenge yourself to watch to see just how much violence you can tolerate. It isn’t quite as cited for its extremity as A Serbian Film or the Human Centipede series, but it’s up there. But what differentiates it from those two provocations is that it does have a larger fanbase of people who do sincerely view it as a quality horror film and not just a geek show. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the movie and I must say that what I got made both “sides” of the film’s reputation but I must say I probably lean more toward team “it’s a legitimately good horror movie” than team “it’s just violent schlock.” For one thing I do think the movie has been somewhat misrepresented over time… or maybe it hasn’t.
“Torture Porn” is a term that was thrown around a lot to describe horror movies in the 2000s, sometimes erroneously. Many people just use it to mean “really violent movie” whereas I view it more to be a movie that’s literally about torture, so Hostel would qualify but The Devil’s Rejects would not. A lot of these “New French Extremity” movies have been called torture porn but most of them would not fit my definition: High Tension is merely a very violent slasher film, Them and Inside are both merely very violent home invasion movies. Frontier(s) is closer, but I’d say that’s closer to just being a movie about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and trying to escape with your life. To my eyes Martyrs is the only one of these that really fits the bill, but it takes longer to get there than I expected as I had heard hyperbolic accounts suggesting that the movie was 90% just watching someone get strapped down and brutalized. The first half of the movie is perhaps more of a really violent revenge movie than anything about a woman who was violently abused by some sort of cult as a child coming back to get revenge on a family she believes to have been responsible for this abuse and also about a friend of hers from an orphanage she lived in after escaping this cult. Fully half of the movie is about her time in a house taking this violent revenge while also being stalked and attacked by some sort of strange feral woman. Make no mistake, this section of the movie is itself extremely violent and goes far beyond what you would expect from a Hollywood horror movie but it is not really “torture.”
The film does, however, start to live up to its reputation in its third act when the second woman becomes a victim of this same cult. Structurally that’s a bit of an odd choice as it essentially makes this a movie where we get the revenge first and then only afterwards get a full account of the brutality that’s being avenged. It’s interesting as it denies the viewer that catharsis during the revenge as we’re left off balance as to whether the people being attacked are even guilty or what exactly they’re accused of. It also means that when the torture does begin we’re denied any serious hope of justice after the fact. In this section the film also famously gives an explanation for what all this torture is about: the cult inflicting violence in the belief that they can somehow induce a sort of enlightened trance state in their victims that can give them insights into the afterlife. Crazy concept but one which could be viewed as a sort of critical metaphor for violent horror movies themselves, suggesting perhaps that the audience is in a way just as guilty of demanding violence upon the characters in the horror movies they watch for their own selfish desire for insight and catharsis… kind of like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games but with fewer literal winks to the camera more people being skinned alive… yeah, I don’t think Haneke would approve and honestly I’m not entirely sure I entirely buy that explination or necessarily think many people would consider this experience “worth it,” but I do think there’s something there. I would also say that this is just generally better made than some of the other movies in this marathon, at the very least the cinematography is less dated and it generally feels less clichéd. It’s the best remembered of these for a reason, but it does go off the rails in the last fifteen minutes or so and you have to be down for a very specific kind of extreme experience to want to watch it.
***1/2 out of Five
Well, that was an experience. On some level this was a bit of a disappointment: two of the five movies (High Tension and Frontier(s)) turned out to be total schlock and one (Them) was just rather unmemorable, and even some of the better movies here were reminders of some of the more unfortunate aesthetic trends of this era. Inside proved to be better, but was more just a really bloody exercise in tension than a truly transcendent experience and really it was only Martyrs that felt like a truly worthy provocation even if it’s not necessarily a perfect movie either. So this wasn’t exactly the particularly sophisticated horror movie that one might expect from the esteemed French cinema but maybe that was a stereotypical thing to expect in the first place. The wave itself largely died out after Martyrs. Pascal Laugier gave interviews suggesting that even with the relative success of some of these movies the gatekeepers of French cinema still had very little interest in funding these sort of films. Aside from High Tension director Alexandre Aja few of these filmmakers really went on to have enduring film careers, most tried to cross over to Hollywood but made sub-par projects there and flamed out. Still, these movies will continue to have relevance as the “shock cinema” for a generation of horror fans who had quite a bit of “shock cinema” at their disposal.