Beginning centuries ago with the writings and exploits of the Marquis de Sade, France has had a long and unique love affair with horror. Drawing influences from years of surrealist paintings and deviant literature and influenced by the brutality of modern American horror films, a pack of new filmmakers has made themselves known with a new generation of definitively French horror films.
The civil unrest in France over the past decades is well-represented, leading to films that have taken the simplistic basis of the American slasher and transformed them into something more resonant. This new generation of French horror more often than not features strong female characters that take severe punishment and come out transformed in the end.
At times pushing these combined ideas and influences to unthinkable extremes, the new “French Extremity” revels in pushing buttons and breaking boundaries. As horror film in France is still considered a very underground and taboo form of art, this new wave of directors has emerged from the underground, becoming responsible for some of the meanest, most intense viewing experiences in recent memory.
10. Brotherhood Of The Wolf (2001)
Brotherhood of the Wolf is a film that defied all expectations upon its release in 2001. Directed by Cristophe Gans (who went on to bring us the first Silent Hill film in 2006) the film managed to break box office records and became the second highest grossing French language film in US history.
A stylish and fast-paced mix of horror, history, and swash-buckling action, the film is set in 18th century France and tells the story of a group of friends sent by the king to investigate tales of a “beast” roaming the countryside killing hundreds.
The theories surrounding the origin of the beast range from the absurd to the logical man made, as the crew find a steel wolf fang and evidence of a secret society known as the Brotherhood of the Wolf. The search for answers reveals many hidden agendas and surprising turns for the weird, as the investigators search for the truth of the horrible monster terrorizing the countryside.
Featuring a great cast, including two strong female leads, this unusual film successfully combines many different elements into one fascinatingly original werewolf film.
9. Mutants (2009)
Shot in dim blue-washed tones, Mutants is a simpler, more intimate story of survival than audiences have come to expect from the overcrowded undead genre. It begins with a pretty standard “zombie movie” set-up in a dreary desperate world, but quickly puts a new spin on the story as this virus involves a very cruel transformation over a period of several days.
As directed by David Morlet, Mutants tells the story of a couple whose lives are turned inside out when one of them gets infected with the degenerative virus and how they intend to deal with this horrific development. Sonia is a medical professional who happens to be the pregnant wife of Marco, a recently infected victim of a rampant virus turning the rest of the world into flesh-eating monsters.
Taking refuge in an underground base, Sonia desperately tries to find a cure for the disease infecting her beloved as she defends her new home from intrusion by the infected multitudes as well as another less sympathetic band of survivors.
Shades of Cronenberg’s The Fly are evident as Marco’s condition worsens, and Sonia is helpless to do anything but watch him mutate and fall apart. The acting is convincing and the effects are top-notch as the film progresses to the inescapably bleak ending. A slow-burning and emotionally engaging film filled with great special effects and a claustrophobic environment, this unique take on the well-worn zombie sub-genre is a rewarding viewing experience.
8. Livide (2011)
Written and directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (the demented minds behind Inside, #3 on this list), Livide is an atmospheric supernatural film obviously meant to showcase their abilities within a larger budget and more open framework.
Originally intended to be the duo’s English-language debut, they returned to their French roots with the production after it became apparent that they were losing creative control over the project.
A slow, creeping fairy-tale of a film, Livide couldn’t be more different from the minimalist gore of their debut. The film follows the character of Lucy as she starts a new job as a live-in caregiver for a once-prominent ballet teacher who is now confined to her bed and in a coma. She learns of a story that the bedridden patient has hidden a treasure of jewels and gold somewhere in the old mansion, and later decides to seek it out with the help of her boyfriend and another friend.
The mansion and it’s stifling atmosphere become a significant character in the film at this point, as the group sneaks in to snoop around for the hidden treasure.
Creepy stuffed animals, a body under a white sheet, and scary sounds from upstairs spook the would-be thieves, but they find themselves now inexplicably trapped in the basement of the large house. The intruders find much more than they bargained for as this dream-like film climaxes with strange occurrences, the suggestion of vampires, and odd rituals.
Livide is a gorgeous experimental film which plays on many of the audience’s fears in new and stylish ways, and ends up revealing itself to be a gorgeous fairy tale with a horrific side just beneath the surface.
7. Them (2006)
Providing the uncredited inspiration for the American film The Strangers in 2008, Them was a new and refreshingly minimalist concept when it hit theaters in 2006. Marketed as being “inspired by true events”, first-time directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud tell the tale of Clementine and Lucas, a young French couple who has recently moved to an isolated cottage in Romania.
After a jarring opening scene involving a mother and daughter terrorized and murdered on a deserted country road, the audience is introduced to the newly-transplanted couple who are blissfully unaware of any imminent danger. Subtly creepy events like the out-of-place sound of music and strange relocation of the couple’s vehicle set the tone on their first night in the new home.
The scares subsequently begin to mount, coming from simple impossible details such as the television turning on and the taps running. The couple panic and fight for their survival as the subdued attack escalates, eventually leading to their attempted escape into the dark forest surrounding their home.
The atmosphere is the star of the show, and the real horror is that there is no motivation here, just a sadistic group of fearless killers that choose their victims at random.
6. Trouble Every Day (2001)
Trouble Every Day (named after a classic Frank Zappa tune) was the highly anticipated follow-up to director Claire Denis’ critically acclaimed Beau Travail. In fact, it turned out to be a very bold horror film that managed to turn audiences off worldwide.
Unflinchingly exploring the themes of body horror, cannibalism, and the extremely taboo idea that satisfying sex must be coupled with violence, this film is a truly unique experiment in boundary-pushing.
Starring rebellious American actor Vincent Gallo and French madwoman Beatrice Dalle, the film explores the themes of desire and dread, focusing on two distinct couples. Gallo’s character and his new wife are on their honeymoon in Paris, with the further motivation to connect with a renowned scientist he had previously worked with on an experiment involving the human libido.
It turns out that the colleague he has sought out has been secretly keeping his own wife in a locked room on the second floor of his home due to her hyper-active sex-drive which leads her to commit acts of murder & savage cannibalism.
As these couples cross paths, the film is at times both subtle and extremely gory, leaving the audience to form their own opinions about the ultimate correlation between sex and suffering.