While Hollywood has been churning out toothless remakes of shocker classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, or lukewarm PG-13 remakes of successful Asian thrillers like The Grudge and The Eye, a generation of filmmakers re-invigorating the horror genre has cropped up in a most unlikely place: France. In a country known more for its frank portrayals of sex and meditations on philosophical ennui, an aesthetic of violence has emerged that, ironically, accomplishes what American auteurs have failed to do - recapture the grit, power, and above all, the danger of American horror in its 1970's heyday. Essentially, what the French have done is up the ante in terms of bloodletting, bringing fresh kineticism and a sense of obscenity to the usual acts of brutality, while still maintaining at least a modicum of existential weight and emotion amidst the proceedings.
In other words, in their recent films the human reaction to terror is infused with enough realism, and enough sincerity is involved in trying to evoke a similar feeling in the audience - as if something is at stake. We have a renewed potential to be provoked and disturbed, not simply entertained. In contrast, the spate of American horror movies, either too self aware, too sycophantic toward their predecessors, or simply too lazy, are less ambitious. Take the American sub-genre coined as "torture porn," characterized by the Hostel and Saw series: it also is an attempt to push the current boundaries of onscreen gore, but because of the lack of true emotional conviction, it results more in the proverbial rollercoaster ride - a repulsive one, yes, but one intended to induce cheap and relatively harmless thrills.
As the term "torture porn" implies, there is a giddy fetishization of the worst things that can possibly happen to a person - the finale of Hostel II explicitly shows the heroine chop off her attacker's penis - but there is enough tongue-in-cheek sensibility, enough playful naughtiness behind the gruesome deeds, that we remain for the most part safe and unmoved. Eli Roth, director of those films, like many coming of age in the 1980's, grew up gorging on videotapes of series like Friday the 13th and Faces of Death, resulting in an oeuvre that is more of a winking homage to that canon rather than an attempt to arouse new insight into the horrific. In a sense he is depicting life - and killing - as it is understood through the experience of watching movies, rather than living in the world. That makes all the difference.
The French horror-meisters are after something more vicious, grounded in a sense of the actual possibilities of terror on the body and psyche.
When Last House on the Left was released in 1971, arguably starting the modern era of horror, it was not merely exploitation (although it was this too); it had depth, reflecting the dark disorientation of the era - Vietnam on nightly T.V., Manson, Altamont, and the messy crash of the hippie dream. The two girls who get lost in the woods in that film are an apt stand-in for the lost youth of that time, and the things that happen to them - humiliation, rape, and dismemberment - had power because they connected to the ravaged national consciousness. But despite America's literal confrontation with "terror" on 9/11 and the daily carnage of Iraq continuing today, American horror films are less willing to reflect or investigate stark reality - they are content to stick to escapist fare. Is it possible that the French, so disdained by Americans for their unwillingness to join the "war on terror" in Iraq (remember "Freedom fries"), have more courage in their cinema to tap into our contemporary age of unease?
8. Sheitan (Satan). A racially diverse and hip group of teenagers end a rambunctious night out in the city by traveling to the rural home of a beautiful girl they meet in a disco. It turns out the place is inhabited by her strange country-bumpkin family, lead by a grinning, delirious, and slightly menacing housekeeper, played with over the top relish by Vincent Cassel (one of France's leading actors). As the city kids realize trouble may be in store, Sheitan builds an impending sense of dread that is offset, and made more unsettling, by a quirky, jittery sense of humor. The house is an effectively creepy funhouse filled with strange artifacts and odd angles, and the film plays like a French version of The Twilight Zone: we know something is dreadfully wrong but we are not sure what. It is intriguing fun to find out the answer, a combination of satanic ritual, family secrets, and unholy birth - even if by the end we are still not completely clear what exactly has happened. The last shot is a bizarre visual joke that is both memorable and very French.
7. Calvaire (The Ordeal). Marc (Laurent Lucas), a small time entertainer, makes an appearance at an old folks home, where he awkwardly fends off the advances of an older woman (a cameo by the most famous French porn star of the 70's, Brigitte Lahaie). Back out on the road, beset by a suspicious set of circumstances, he finds himself stranded in a small town, where he winds up at a hotel with no other residents (always a bad sign!). Like Sheitan (without any of the lightheartedness), the film is a paranoid nightmare about being trapped in an otherworldly conspiracy, set out in the country where the world has been allowed to go mad. Marc's own anxiety about sex, hinted at in the first scenes, becomes manifest in his increasingly surreal and threatening situation: it soon becomes apparent that the hotel-keeper, who really misses his departed wife, has deranged plans and affections for his guest, while the other male townsfolk spend their time trying to screw pigs, and eventually turn their attention to Marc. The entire place seems to be under the sway of some hypnotic torpor, in which suppressed (homo)sexual urges fester. This dynamic is brought to life most powerfully in an amazing bar scene when the men dance together as if possessed by a secret backwoods ritual.
6. I Stand Alone. Gaspar Noé's first film centers on a lonely and disturbed butcher played by Philippe Nahon, whose bulbous face is emblematic of the tone of the new French wave - a mixture of cynicism, menace, and grotesquerie. He lives in almost complete psychological isolation, and the Boogeyman chasing him is the emptiness of life itself. In unrelentingly somber fashion, the smothering awareness of alienation closes in, embodied by a technique that Noe uses repeatedly throughout the film in which the camera aggressively moves toward Nahon's grim visage in a series of jarring jump cuts. No violence happens in these moments, but the magic trick is that they are as suspenseful as most scenes in which blood is spilled. There is no mistaking the implication of Noé's atmospherics, a bold cinematic play on the phenomenology of existentialism: it is reality itself that is frightening. The butcher's psychological torture chamber finds a tragic catharsis in the finale, when overwhelmed by incestuous lust and guilt, he commits a horrible act against his own institutionalized daughter. One of the most upsetting things I had ever seen until Noé's second film (see bottom of the list).
5. Ils (Them). A couple vacationing at an elegant and isolated manse find themselves terrorized by faceless, seemingly purposeless hooded killers (roughly the same plot is found in the just-released American film The Strangers). The film is an exercise in sustained suspense, as the sanctity and safety of home is slowly encroached upon with eerie precision. The attack is made more unnerving because of its anonymity. In the end, daylight comes, sweeping away all the tension of the proceeding night, and the identity of "them" is revealed. And a mysterious auditory cue for their menacing presence that appears throughout the film is explained by the most innocent of objects, adding to the creepy surprise.
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