The French, as Groundskeeper Willie once famously intoned, are a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys, their rifles made of rubber so that they might bounce back into the empty hands they’ve thrown up in certain defeat. Their cuisine is confusing. Their language rolls off the tongue like a razor blade. Their personal grooming and bathing habits are suspect. Yet despite all these terrible qualities, this otherwise hopeless country has managed, like a blind squirrel finding a nut, to get at least one thing right: Horror.
In the new millennium, a group of talented French filmmakers unleashed a new wave of horror that would make even the most jaded of gore hounds take pause. Filled with unfortunate souls in unfortunate situations, these films are often bloody, frequently bleak, and almost always morally nihilistic. They are not easy to watch but they are well made and well worth your time.
Here are some of my faves!
A group of dirty French cops invade a tenement high-rise under the control of the vicious drug gang that was responsible for the death of their colleague. Their quest for vengeance is thwarted in a vicious gun battle leaving casualties on both sides. Before the surviving gangsters can dispatch their enemies, an unexplained zombie apocalypse lays waste to the city. Trapped on the top floor of the building, now surrounded by the undead, the two forces join sides to navigate their way to a parking garage that serves as their only avenue for escape. Along the way they must deal with their fallen brothers, now risen and hungry for flesh, and their distrust for each other. The flick is relentless. From the cops siege of the building to a final showdown in the garage with the few survivors and hundreds of zombies, the pace never lets up. The final shot is so perfectly depressing and so very French.
Two young college girls get away for the weekend to the country house of one of their parents. After a nice meal with the family, they settle in for the night. The visiting girl, Marie, is still awake when she hears someone at the door. Her friend Alex’s father answers. And all hell breaks loose as a madman is unleashed on the unprepared family. As the killer stalks through the house, Marie hides under her bed just as the killer enters. Finding no one, there he moves on. She comes downstairs just in time to see the vicious predator dragging Alex into his truck. Marie sneaks into the truck before it drives off setting up an ultimate confrontation with the killer that will decide both her and her friend’s fate. There is an ill-advised third act twist that almost derails the whole flick but one can forgive it for all the goodness that comes before the big reveal.
3. Ils (Them)
What’s up with the French and their fear of the countryside? Several of the films on this list involve isolated folks surrounded by malicious forces with emergency services not readily available. Here, a young nurse leaves the big city returning to the country home she shares with her boyfriend. Their evening is interrupted by strange noises and music coming from outside. They investigate and see someone drive off in their car. They return to the house only to find that they are no longer alone as unseen parties begin tormenting them. The film is short and economical with no fat on the bone. It conveys with brutal effectiveness the couple’s realization that their lives are in jeopardy. The film is all the more disturbing because it seems entirely plausible made even more so by the reveal that closes it. Highly recommended.
This film is not for the weak of heart. It is unflinching and brutal in the depiction of its subject matter all the while taking sudden turns that keep the viewer guessing just what the hell might come next. It opens with a young girl escaping captivity from an abandoned warehouse and briefly follows (through videotape footage) her recovery. It then jumps to a typical family enjoying a simple weekend breakfast…in the country (See?!?) A doorbell rings. The father answers. A cold, dead-eyed young woman, Marie, is at the door. And she is about to unleash hell. Her motives become clear as she exacts bloody and indiscriminate revenge. Her accomplice, Anna, another woman abused in her youth, is shocked at the level of violence, almost sympathizing with the victims. Soon, Anna won’t have time for sympathy. The film bravely asks whether violence and pain serves a purpose. More bravely, it answers that question.
I was fortunate enough to first catch this film at a horror con that came to town a few years ago. That viewing continues to be one of the most visceral and nerve-wracking theater experiences I’ve had in my 40 odd years. As the lights went up in the theater, my body unclenched from the terror to which it had been subjected the previous 82 minutes. I let out a deep breath knowing I’d been exposed to something special. The story is simple: A widowed mother-to-be, alone in her house on Christmas Eve and scheduled to have labor induced the next day, is set upon by another woman who wants what the protagonist must treasures: her child. The lengths this total stranger will go to claim her prize know no bounds. The film’s violence is almost operatic, escalating by the minute as the antagonist lays waste to anything in her way. It ends on an image so profoundly heartbreaking it will test your soul.
These fine films are but a sampling of the great offerings France has had to offer in the last decade. The French New Wave has slowed down a bit but the product that has made its way overseas speaks for itself. It’s not for the squeamish or for those who get morally outraged. Because, remember, the French have no morals. Such a dastardly people. And cinema is all the better for it.