Sunday, 1 February 2009

French slasher films...

A few years ago I saw Alexandre Aja's Switchblade Romance and was surprised to find that for the first time since Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween (I could list a dozen good films here but insert your favourites if you disagree with mine) someone had made an effective and genuinely terrifying slasher film. All the regular elements were there - home invasion, burly and seemingly invincible psycho, surviving heroine who toughens up in time to take on the killer single-handedly. Everything most slasher films give you, but this was better than most slasher films. What people seemed to forget about the films that spawned the genre was that they were genuinely good films. They weren't made to fill a bodycount or come up with new and wonderful ways to kill people - they were films in which the fears of a paranoid society were made flesh. Much like the flashes of gore in the opening of Chainsaw these were snapshots of a culture that was increasingly fuelled by fear.

What followed was a load of films in which masked killers massacred hundreds of dumb teenagers, unaware that the biggest casualty was the credibility of their own franchise. Then three things happened - Carol Clover wrote Men, Women and Chainsaws helpfully explaining what the films were really about, Scream made a joke of the genre and Halloween H20 went back and chopped the killer's head off, making sure it was dead. After that book and those two films there shouldn't have been anymore slashers. Unfortunately those two films made money, meaning we got Scream 2 & 3 and Halloween: Resurrection which cancelled out anything achieved by their predecessors.

The slasher genre then split into two distinct forms. First there was the ultra-violent adults-only slasher such as the remake of Chainsaw and the Hostel films. And yes, the violence was pushed to new extremes, at the expense of things like stories and characters and general good film-making practices. The second form is making slashers for kids. The PG-13 rated Prom Night remake for example in which teens are stabbed a billion times without losing any blood and the cops are younger and trendier than most of the murder victims. Amazingly it was rated 15 over here, maybe just on principle.

Before people protest with 'But Friday 13th Part 6 is ace!' or 'What about Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors' I'm not saying slasher films can't be fun. What I'm saying is it's a sub-genre of horror, so they should be scary, right? Which gets me back to Switchblade Romance and French horror films in general.

So fast forward a few years and France also gives us the incredibly atmospheric Them. Although not technically a slasher film of the masked killer variety, it does feature a tough heroine and a home invasion, and had a similar quality to Switchblade Romance - it was very well produced. That's what makes those films different - the filmmakers approached the subject matter seriously. There was no winking at the audience here, no 'it's only a movie' moments, just well made films that happened to be in the horror genre. The same was also true of Frontière(s) which had the added bonus of being incredibly nihilistic - a slasher film about horrible people being killed off by more horrible people.

And then we get to Inside, which I just watched. This one is definitely a slasher film - home invasion, psycho, final girl all present and correct. Plus there is lots and lots of blood - it's the first film in ages to have made me look away from the screen several times and I figured I was pretty much desensitised to all that by now. But there's something else here - like the other French horror films I've mentioned it's a proper film. It has a style and a subtlety to it, along with an understanding of how to create an atmosphere. The killer is perhaps the most disturbing screen monster I've seen in some time, and also very different to those we are used to. And it's full of amazing images - the final shot of the film depicts an incredibly gothic and haunting moment that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.

So well done France! Once again I am provided with more ammunition in my ongoing argument to prove that the horror genre is far from dead.

At the moment you can only get Inside on Region 1 import (much like another film I've been talking about a lot recently) but if you're a horror fan it's worth getting hold of. It's one of the rare good ones:


gerdarcy said...

They sound good, shall add them to my list. If you want a couple of atmospheric French Sci-fi, 'Dante 01' is derivative but very stylish, and the excellent 'Eden Log' are worth a watch.

Chris Regan said...

Cool, Dante 01 is on my list. I really liked Eden Log - really interesting film. Chrysalis is another good one - not sure the plot makes sense but it's another very stylish one and has an excellent fight scene that takes place in a very small bathroom.

Anonymous said...

We did like chrysalis although i would say that it is a bit too stylish and doesn't have enough story. Bathroom fight scene is excellent although no has death by towel, which is my current favourite for dispatching an enemy.

Ross said...

need to see chrysalis and dante 01. LOVE Switchblade Romance and I've got Them and Eden Lake (which is supposed to be amazing and a British film at that) but need to watch both of them.

FILMNUT1 said...

Dante O1 is very cool if a little pretentious. Especially the end. Impressively short though.

The French really are making some cool genre movies these days and I also recommend:

Atomik Circus
Samorais (quirky and worth a look)
The Great Challenge (Sons of the Wind)
OSS 117: Cario - Nest of Spies

Chris Regan said...

Cool, I'll look out for those.

Justin said...

I must admit I wouldn't describe any of the French films mentioned as 'slasher films' although I agree that all of them are well produced and take their subject matter seriously, which makes them work much better than most of the horror slush saturating the market at the moment.
Films like Mario Bava's 'Bay of Blood' and Bob Clark's 'Black Christmas' really set the 'slasher' template way before John Carpenter's seminal flick came along, and I don't really see those French films sticking to that format - which to my mind makes them stronger films.
Anyway, while we're on the subject of recommending films I'd certainly suggest you take a look at 'Eden Lake', which got a round of applause at Cannes, and 'Martyrs' which I saw at the Abertoir film festival and felt like someone had just smacked me in the head with a crowbar and left me for dead - it's that powerful! And thought provoking, which is what the best horror films are...

Chris Regan said...

Yeah, that's why I tried to play it safe by saying insert your own favourites here because I think everyone has their own reference point for the origin of the slasher genre. I like Black Christmas a lot, but I think as much as it may be an innovator (after Psycho) in a way it's the first throwaway slasher - there's no real depth to that film. Same with Bay of Blood - I can't even say I enjoyed that film to be honest.

I think Halloween and Chainsaw had so much more going on, which I guess is why I'm drawing the comparison with the French films as I see them as reclaiming some of the intelligence that I think the genre started out with.

I'm looking forward to seeing Eden Lake and almost considered delaying posting this until I'd seen Martyrs as I know it's very much part of the new wave - I may have to import that one if it ends up as elusive as Inside.