5. Frontiere(s) (2007)
Considered by director Xavier Gens to be a “love letter” to the horror genre, Frontiere(s) proudly wears its American influences on its sleeve. Tributes to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly are in evidence here, coupled with a wholly new and uniquely French environment and atmosphere of suffocating dread.
The director says that the idea for the film came to him “from the events in 2002, when we had the presidential elections in France. There was an extreme right party in the second round. That was the most horrible day of my life.”
The film takes place in post-election Paris, where rioting and civil unrest is rampant, and follows a group of young rebels intent on taking advantage of the chaos to pull off a robbery and escape the new political leadership. When the robbery goes horribly wrong, young and pregnant Yasmine (another strong female lead) and one other survivor are captured and imprisoned by a family of deranged right-wing lunatics.
Yasmine’s determined fight for survival and escape from this delusional “family” is the focus of the extremely bloody second half of the film, earning Frontiere(s) the dreaded NC-17 rating upon its US release.
With a decidedly rebellious political undertone concealed beneath buckets of gore, this film is effective on multiple levels, and even subversively turns the lens on the real life horrors of the Holocaust in ways that many audiences were not prepared for. Frontiere(s) has become known as a truly revolutionary bit of filmmaking, once again re-inventing simple American influences into a more meaningful commentary on politics and then-current culture in France.
4. Possession (1981)
Possession is a film from the 1980s featuring a story and undeniable intensity that was well ahead of its time. Directed by Andrezj Zulawski and starring a very young Sam Neill opposite French beauty Isabelle Adjani, this French/German genre mashup is effective on many levels.
The film throws you right into their world, as Sam Neill’s character Marc returns home from some kind of unexplained secret mission only to find his home life in chaos.
His wife wants a divorce, and they fight about it intensely. Marc proves himself to be emotionally fragile, and though some may say he is overacting, his character really leaves you with an unpredictable feeling ; that he could snap at any second. Isabelle Adjani’s character Anna, on the other hand, is cool and distant, and extremely unhappy, fueling Marc’s constant frustration with her.
Early in the film, Marc loses his mind completely, making obsessive calls having a complete meltdown and trashing a restaurant, then spasming and curling up into a fetal position for three straight weeks.
The third act of the film takes a wild turn into some kind of deranged precursor to Hellraiser mixed with an obvious influence of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Marc hires the most obvious private investigator ever, who manages to talk his way into Anna’s barren apartment and noses around until he stumbles upon a strange creature, and Anna attacks him with a broken bottle.
After this uncharacteristically violent act, she begins to collect more victims, presumably to feed and grow the creature in the back room.
“He’s very tired. He made love to me all night,” she says. “He’s still unfinished, you know.”
The film now tries to horrify us visually, but it is all meant to illustrate the mental and emotional break-down of these two people as they struggle with their own unbearable feelings and dark sides. The film seems to be saying that no one can ever truly know or “possess” another person, and the pursuit of this will lead only to madness and confusion.
3. Inside (2007)
Inside, or À l’intérieur, is an exercise in minimalism and pure insanity. A plot that can be outlined in one sentence (Pregnant woman gets stalked and tortured by insane person on Christmas Eve.) becomes so much more in the hands of directors Juilen Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Another fine example of French affinity for strong female characters, both the stalker and the stalked belong in this category.
After a shockingly brutal opening sequence where the audience quickly learns that pregnant protagonist Sarah is carrying a fatherless baby, we see her preparing for her delivery in a melancholy holiday setting.
A strange woman shows up at her door, and an increasingly intense game of cat and mouse follows as the sinister woman unrelentingly torments Sarah and her unborn baby. Confusion and misunderstanding from the local police and Sarah’s well-intentioned mother provide additional unfortunate victims for the killer, but never get in the way of the single-minded ferocious focus of her tormentor.
This film includes some of the most unflinchingly gory moments and shocking random events of any in recent memory, and never backs down from the horrifically bleak direction it is heading.
2. Haute Tension (2003)
The film that brought the name of director Alexandre Aja to the attention of American audiences, Haute Tension is a masterpiece of slow-building overwhelming suspense. Known in the UK as Switchblade Romance, the film tells the tale of Marie, a troubled young misfit who has been invited to stay with her friend Alex for a weekend of studying.
A particularly brutal mass murderer randomly shows up in the middle of the night, and proceeds to slay Alex’s family in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable. The two girls run for their lives, and the masterful sound design and cinematography keep the terror alive right up until the real killer is revealed.
A wholly unbelievable development, this “twist” is also regarded as a “cheat” and has drawn much criticism to the otherwise solid film. Roger Ebert even called it a “plot hole large enough to drive a truck through”.
Despite this inexplicable third act twist that has divided audiences in many horror discussions, Aja’s debut film is gory and effective. The film provides such tense thrills and genuine fear that it is easy for many viewers to overlook the bad for the extremely well-made good.
1. Martyrs (2008)
Pushing the envelope as far as it will go, Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs is one that viewers are not likely to forget. Taking the “torture porn” trend prevalent in so many mediocre modern American horror films and giving it an actual purpose, this haunting film is at times almost unbearable to watch.
Rather than trying to find entertainment value in the gruesome display of torture like its American counterparts, Laugier’s film is, according to him, “about the nature and the meaning of human suffering”.
Following a pair of strong young female protagonists, the story twists into an unpredictable conspiracy theory that reaches into the darkest depths of both empathy and apathy, with the explicit purpose of coming up with answers to the very meaning of existence.
Martyrs is a masterpiece of tension and an unflinching look at the horrors of the human condition and the ubiquitous struggle to understand it all. As director Pascal Laugier says in his introduction (or apology) for the film, “It is a very free, very raw, and very experimental film. Feel free to hate me, I will understand.”
Author Bio: Larry Darling Jr. is the creator and main contributor to HorrorHomework.com. He has spent his life immersed in horror culture of all aspects including films, stories and artwork. He also writes short stories and is currently working on his first screenplay.