Usually if you want to terrify the French, all you’ve got to do is yell something in German. One good “Achtung! Der Maginot Line ist kaput!” and they oui-oui in their trousair. But, judging from their recent cinematic output - known by the overly generous as “the New Wave of French Horror” and by me as “oh, fuck, yet another female-covered-in-Karo-syrup-and-crying-for-98-minutes movie” - they’ve become jaded. And lazy. Oh so fuckin'-damn lazy. Rather than build plots or characters, or work on pacing, they just throw in a bunch of nonstop torture scenes... something you need no talent to horrify people with, provided they have an ounce of human empathy. What the Japanese did with fake-torture-snuff in the Guinea Pig films Devil’s Experiment and Flower of Flesh & Blood the French decided to artsy-fart up (or maybe just fartsy-fart) and slick down, but no matter how far they stick their lil’ pinkies out, I’m not buying it anymore. After watching a few of these faux-intellectual sadist-circle-jerks, I’m screaming bloody merde-er at the absolute horseshit these assholes have the Gaul to foist on the horror genre. It’s pissed me off so badly that, god help me, I’m making bad puns! I hope you're happy, French people! But, if the Jerry Lewis thing is any indication of your senses of humor, you consider me a genius!
And I’m stupid. I admit it. I brought this rage upon myself, for I, despite having innumerable reasons to know better, once again listened to the opinion of Michael Gingold, the guy whose editorship and weak taste in horror has been destroying Fangoria magazine for years now. I’ve fallen for this guy’s recommendations of too many “masterpieces” that turned out to be boring miserable dreck too many times, and wasted too much time and money on things he claimed were major milestones and game-changers for the horror genre that turned out to just be another weak-ass “transgressive“ mess. After getting burned by taking this cunt’s advice on such films as Inside, I was gun-shy about checking out Martyrs initially. But then, stupid me, I had a brain lapse, gave in to horror-media peer pressure, and figured I had to check it out if I was to remain a credible horror reviewer.
Someday I will learn to trust my instincts and stop getting in the car every time some Fango-fuck drives past the schoolyard and waves candy at me. I had my trepidations going in, but Martyrs turned out to be such a lame-ass pile of dogsurprise that I actually got angry this time and wanted to do something about it. I may or may not let my 20-something-year subscription to Fangoria lapse (RueMorgue is a much better magazine these days, anyway, although I think they also liked Martyrs), but I can at least declare war on “The New Wave Of French Horror” (or NAMBLA) here on this little blog that only a handful of people I know read. Viva le guerre!
First up, I don’t hate French horror overall. Les Yeux Sans Visage (or Eyes Without A Face for those of us who speak a language that doesn’t require phlegm) is a major masterpiece. As is Diabolique. And I’m quite fond of a lot of Jean Rollin’s films; some of ‘em are junky jiggle-movies, but most of them have a weird dreamlike quality that I really like. I don’t care that the vampires in Virgins And Vampires had plastic forks for fangs; the film still started out with the brilliantly-surreal scene of two girls dressed as clowns having a running gunfight with the police on the highway, and that’s enough to make it classic to me!
And I’m not shy about gore; I’ve been rooting through the chunkblower-movie underground for around a quarter century and was into Fulci and Italian cannibal movies before it was cool. I’m not a big fan of torture-porn, but, even though I do hate seeing women raped or abused, that’s mostly because most of the genre is lazy and takes the cheap route; it’s the easiest thing in the world to generate horror by mistreating a helpless captive. That said, I don’t mind all of it, and like lots of really nasty and unpleasant and disturbing films. I’ve probably seen Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS and Make Them Die Slowly more times than your little cousins have seen Ratatouille, okay? I can give you a shot breakdown of the wood-splinter-through-the-eye scene from Zombie from memory, and I’ve eaten pizza while watching Aftermath, so let’s lay the question of “squeamishness” to rest right now, or I’ll make you watch Nekromantik in slo-mo. Even the scenes that are already in slo-mo.
So, being French is not my objection, and gore/disturbing/unpleasant isn‘t my objection; my objection is that a lot of these films are absolute dung and the horror community seems too timid to call bullshit. I think it’s because they’re afraid of being called “wimpy” or getting accused of not being able to “take it.” There’s also a certain factor present where people have a tendency to call too many things “art.” Drive a nail into a loaded diaper and some pretentious tit holding a pipe and wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows will immediately leap from a knothole and start flinging around words like “existential,” “post-modern,” and “zeitgeist.” Because these films are “transgressive” people assume they're ground-breaking (sorry, bitches, but I Spit On Your Grave and Last House On The Left already paved that road, and you're just running along side the car, yapping at the tires), and because the French have been coasting on the reputation of former glories for decades, people assume everything they touch is right out of Cahiers du Cinema. If they keep calling things like Martyrs and Inside "art," though, I think we oughtta take Cannes away from 'em. How does the "Peoria Film Festival" sound? Has a ring to it, no?
This whole "New Wave Of French Horror" pretty much kicked off with High Tension. This established several parameters that all the others must follow, such as lots of screaming, people taking amounts of punishment that actual humans wouldn’t be able to withstand, and girls staying covered with sticky Karo blood and dirt for at least 85% of the running time. I didn’t mind High Tension so much. The end was astoundingly stupid and showed a toddler’s understanding of human psychology, and they flat-out fuckin’ ganked Dean Koontz’s plot from Intensity and didn’t pay him so much as a franc for it, but at least that film did know how to create characters and build suspense, something most of the other new French horror films either don't know how to do, or don't consider important.
I’ve avoided a few of these films, such as Frontier(s) (even the title on that bitch is pretentious, with that parenthetical business) and Sheitan, and probably won’t be seeking them out, but I’ve seen more than enough. And here are my reviews of them. I hope I treat these movies with as much respect and tenderness as they treat their actresses, and may my invective warm the heartles of your cock, or something.
Martyrs (C, 2008) Overpraised French horror horseshit from the worn-out “torture-porn” school. The pretentious plot of this snoozer concerns a couple of girls trying to avenge the traumatic abuse one of them suffered. They track down her abusers 15 years after she escaped their clutches and kill the whole family with a shotgun. After retribution, they strangely hang around the crime scene, and the victim is still so insane from what she’s endured that she mutilates herself while hallucinating that a dead woman’s torturing her. (The dead woman is the only remotely creepy or scary thing in the whole film, reminiscent of the thing from the last minutes of [REC].) After suffering plenty of bloody mayhem at her own hands, she kills herself. The remaining girl frees another hideously-tortured victim from a complex hidden under the house. Then she falls into the hands of captors who are subjecting girls to extremes of suffering to discover who’ll be a victim and go insane, and who’ll transcend the suffering and become a martyr. The captors are part of a large, well-organized and funded secret cult of older people who are apparently trying to figure out if there’s anything after death (although they get their information from victims who haven’t died yet, so why that makes any sense, I don’t know). Yes, you're actually asked to believe that not only would one person be lunatic enough to want to engage in such senseless practices, there's a whole society of 'em! What’s so offensive about this movie isn’t the pointless torture, it’s the pretentiousness. The filmmakers don’t have the balls to just make a Guinea Pig or Hostel type movie, they have to try to “justify” it by tacking on this shallow pretentious “philosophy,” cynically counting on the audience to read things into vague hints that they drop and which even they probably don’t understand. “Just have the girl whisper something we can’t hear, and fanboys will speculate about what she said for thread after thread on the horror forums! By god, we‘re geniuses!” I find that cowardly, hiding behind an "art" tag. The “plot” of this film is so disjointed that I get the feeling director Pierre LeTeat (not his real name but I don’t think enough of ‘im to bother lookin’ it up) actually wanted to make two or three short films but figured it would be more marketable if he smooshed ‘em clumsily together. Watching this is like listening to a three year old tell you a story; it ends, but since they have your attention, they just tack on more "and then!" shit. The real story in this movie is done in the first thirty minutes, but then she finds another girl in the basement, and then when that subplot’s done, the torture cult shows up and something else starts happening. Too bad they didn’t need another 20 minutes of run time, because I really think we could have fit a Viking invasion in there, and this movie needs Vikings, and maybe puppets, too, just so it‘ll have some entertainment value. I did have one fan of this movie tell me that he doesn’t like movies to have a story, anyway, so, there ya go, take that as a recommendation if you will. Like all of these French crapfestivals, the movie overplays itself and becomes weak by overestimating the amount of damage the human body can take. A back full of deep razor slashes that’d leave any real human needing a Life Flight airlift to a trauma ward incapacitate these people about as much as a hangnail. Characterization is absolute zero in this film. You don’t know these girls at all, and any empathy you feel for them is based just on the fact that you’re human and don’t want to see anyone tortured... and the filmmakers rely on that fact and so they don’t even try. The gore effects are okay (although the full-body suit at the end was more silly-looking than horrific) but mostly it’s dirty-Karo-girls again, and the scenes of suffering actually become boring and tiresome after a while. I’ve seen people online claiming this film traumatized them and was so intense they were left trembling, but I was absolutely bored, and it took me three attempts to get through the movie because I fell asleep watching it twice. If you’re 16 years old this may have some value as an endurance-test-rite-of-passage thing, but honestly, if you’ve seen any of these torture-porn movies, like Turistas or the Hostel or Saw series, you’re not going to see anything much different here. And if all you’re looking for is an endurance test, save yourself some time and just watch “2 Girls 1 Cup” online -- at least that’s only around 5 minutes instead of 98, and I’ll respect you more for watching that. If you want to watch a really arty film around the same things, go get Salo, which at least admits it eats shit. Anyway, for what it is, Martyrs is well-shot and well-acted, but it’s still not much above a “look at my chewed-up food” level despite its pretenses at “depth,” and I wasn’t disturbed or “transgressed” in the least; the only endurance that was tested was my patience for watching this nothing. Don’t believe the hype. It’s not “unforgettable” -- I won’t remember much about it in a month, other than how much I resented having my time wasted.
Inside (C, 2007) This movie is just so wrong. In an era of torture-porn where everyone’s trying to one-up everyone else for unpleasantness, it’s finally come to this. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a pregnant woman subjected to hideous abuse for 90 minutes, see this movie... and then kill yourself because you’re a detriment to the human race. Sarah, the pregnant woman, survives a car crash that killed her husband. Months later she’s recovered but still depressed, and is due to give birth on Christmas day. But on Christmas Eve a homicidally crazy woman breaks into her house and tries to cut her baby out with scissors. The wounded (and covered in Karo!) Sarah manages to escape by hiding in bathrooms and such, but even though an implausible number of people drop by to rescue her (including the police) the crazy woman is incredibly vicious and determined, and Sarah will have to go to extremes if she’s going to save herself and her in-the-process-of-being-born child. The movie’s good at ratcheting up the tension (although that’s a pretty easy feat; try to make a non-intense pregnant-woman-under-attack movie) and doesn’t pull any punches in what it shows... but are even hardcore horror fans really going to want to watch a pregnant woman getting horribly brutalized, having to give herself a tracheotomy, and all the other unrelenting nastiness on display here? Does it really serve any purpose beyond being a morbid endurance test? (And, given the fact that I almost watched it again a couple of months later because I actually forgot I’d already watched it, I’m not sure it was super-effective at that). Can we just declare a winner in the sickness sweepstakes and move onto something else, like, I dunno, maybe a movie with a plot? And does anybody believe that human bodies hold THAT much blood, and can keep functioning after such quantities are spilled? It’s well made for the most part (the lighting is for shit and the editing isn’t so hot) and delivers the sickness, but probably more than most reasonable people would want. Not particularly impressive unless you think Cannibal Corpse lyrics are poetry or just hate women. In which case, fuck you.
Ils (C, 2005) aka Them. This was a real disappointment for me, because the premise sounded ultra-scary (I regularly have nightmares like this), but the execution of it was a big letdown. It’s built around a simple premise (and as we’re learning here, French horror tends to lean more toward premises than plots): a couple in an isolated house are surrounded and tormented by persons unknown (and mostly unseen), for purposes undetermined. At first they just get weird phone calls (creaky noises) and then their car gets stolen, and then weird things start happening inside the house. Someone turns on appliances and cuts the power on and off, and bangs on doors when the couple try to barricade themselves. When they finally see a few of the intruders, they’re kids in hooded sweatshirts. The couple try to escape through the woods, but they’re stalked there, too The film keeps the tension high and constant, which is part of its problem; you get so used to the situation that it soon loses most of its impact, and after a while you’re just watching scared-looking people running back and forth, and since it’s too dark to see much of anything, that loses most of its already-limited charm pretty fast. I mean, even punk rock uses three chords fer fuxsake, and this is just one-one-one, with no stops or starts to give it rhythm. It can’t maintain intensity with that choice. Still, you will be intrigued and stay to see what happens, to find out who’s behind all the terrorizing, and why... and when you do, you may be a bit disappointed that it’s not bigger than it is. And don’t expect all the answers. It’s a fairly creepy film, but reminds me of an earlier (and also much-hyped) French film, The Iron Rose, which is also creepy but mostly consists of people running around. You never get a real sense of the layout of the house, and characterization is very weak, but at least it’s a French movie that doesn’t just rely on torture-scenes. Torment and terrorization scenes, yes, but the blood is minimal. This is supposedly based on true events, which makes it a little more unnerving. Worth seeing (as is the similarly-lackluster remake-that-won’t-admit-it’s-a-remake, The Strangers), but just don’t get your hopes up, because it’s not likely to scare you nearly as much as the press would lead you to believe. I’m starting to think the average age of the horror fans on IMDB is fifteen.
Irreversible (C, 2002) When people start talking about the most disturbing films ever, this bizarrely-constructed French sickie always seems to come up amongst the top contenders... and it deserves that slot, although it takes the cheap ‘n’ easy route to “shocking” by making a rape scene last for 10 minutes or so. The narrative goes in reverse - the film doesn’t go backwards, but short segments are shown in reverse sequential order (for no real reason ‘cept’n it’s fucking clever, innit?). A guy who’s enraged to the point of insensibility storms into a hellish gay club called The Rectum, looking for a pimp called The Tenia... and you see what happens there and then work backwards to find out what led up to it. I don’t want to give too much of that away (even though it’s about as straightforward as it can get, despite being shown backwards -- the French don’t seem to think they need to bother with things like story), but you’ll see some extremely unpleasant, hard-to-watch events along the way, including a horrific sodomy-rape beating that goes on forfreakin'ever, and a guy getting his head beaten in with a fire extinguisher, and that wouldn’t be much more graphically realistic if this was a snuff film. The film is very well-made (despite over-reliance on disorienting drunken-style camera-fu) and that’s about the only reason the sick parts are in any way excusable. The film has a point about the harshness of life and the randomness of injustice, but that’s not exactly a deep or controversial viewpoint for anyone who’s been alive and out in the world, and it’s not likely a lesson you’ll appreciate. Despite the artistic nature of the film it’s not one you’re likely to revisit often, and it’s not exactly entertainment... and since the lesson’s not something that’s likely to bring you any kind of “enlightenment,” and there are entertaining films out there, why bother? The film goes so far out of its way to assault the audience that the first half hour is scored with a 28 Hz noise track, which causes nausea and dizziness in most people, just to make everyone sick. If the filmmakers have that kind of contempt for you, why give them your money? I hear starving is good for artists, so let’s see how it works for director Jacques Strappe (again, not his real name, but, fuck ‘im, who cares?). Just trying to be helpful.
Calvaire (C, 2004) aka The Ordeal. This is actually a Belgian film, but since they’re influenced by the French even down to the language, I’m fitting this into the neo-French horror movement. It’s boundary-pushing horror that’s been compared to Deliverance, not that it’s a tenth as good. A young nightclub singer tries to escape the unwanted advances of weirdoes by taking a vacation, but his van breaks down deep in the backwoods, in the worst place in the world for his purposes. The village he ends up in seems full of eccentrics, but he soon learns they’re a little worse than that; they’re pig-fuckers! And the guy who’s been hosting him at the inn is really lonely, misses his wife, and thinks the singer might make a good substitute! But his neighbors may be getting tired of screwing farm animals and might want the singer for themselves. It’s all stopped from being too horrific by being played for black comedy, and includes references to other films. There are elements of Misery and Straw Dogs, and one scene at a dinner table is an obvious homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Serious or not, though, it’s twisted, yet stylish, but not particularly memorable. If I hadn’t written this review down at the time I’d watched it, all I’d remember about it is that somebody fucked pigs.
Anyway, I hope I've done my part to air-hole this "film movement," as it stands. If the French start actually turning out quality stuff, then I'll welcome them, but if this is a repeat of the J-horror craze, where everything that came out of Japan was declared an instant classic just because a few films were really good, then I want to take it down fast and hard before its wretched influence can throw the whole horror genre into a very shallow ditch.