In 2007 French filmmakers Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo released “Inside,” a French horror film about a pregnant woman who is violently targeted by an unknown intruder. The movie was brutal, unflinching, and totally brilliant. It was an exercise in terror that was both excessively stylized and almost uncomfortably realistic; a movie of visceral muchness. The violence of “Inside” meant that a wide release would come with the stigma of an NC-17 rating, so it didn’t get the kind of exposure and acclaim that it rightfully deserved, instead amassing a cult audience on home video. Their follow-up, “Livid,” was never released in America on any format, so the fact that their new film, “Among the Living,” would make its world premiere at SXSW, was pretty big news indeed, not just for horror fans but fans of quality cinema in general. Sadly, the new film captures none of the fun or pizzazz of their first film. In fact, it’s straight up bad.
The prologue to “Among the Living” is probably the best thing about the movie: it’s Halloween, sometime in the not-too-distant past, and a pregnant woman shoos away a trio of adorable trick-or-treaters and turns to her husband, who is watching a news report about the gas that was used in a recent conflict that he clearly fought in. Violent images flash through his mind as the news reporter reads the side effects of the toxin: it fundamentally alters the DNA of those who have ingested it, leading to birth defects, psychological disorders and mutations. He is clearly disturbed and turns to his wife, who promptly whacks him with a baseball bat. She goes upstairs and enters the room of her child. The room is filthy, with flies buzzing overhead. She approaches her child with a kitchen knife and stabs him several times, before her husband stops her. She calls the child a monster, but he disagrees. Then she takes the knife and swings it into her pregnant belly, right before she slices her own throat. The father, the monster child, and the fetus that he’s ripped out of his wife’s womb, escape. The father tells his child that they’re going to start over, with a new life and a new family.
All of this happens before the movie’s title card, so it’s a little disappointing that the movie jarringly turns its attention to a trio of precocious scamps – Victor, Dan, and Tom (note: we’re unsure of who plays the kids because the IMDB page doesn’t have photos of the young boys). Victor is our main character, a comic book-loving kid who is smart but troubled, mostly due to the fact that his father died a few years ago (he describes his stepdad as an alcoholic to one of his teachers but this seems to be a flight of fancy), while Dan is the nerdy rich kid and Tom is the lower class, asthmatic brute. The three kids are best of friends, and when they’re all sentenced to detention on the last day of school, they boldly hatch an escape plan, bailing on school and enjoying themselves in the nearby countryside.
Of course they are up to no good, too, and after setting fire to the barn of an old farmer (one who beat the shit out of Tom previously), they escape to “Blackwoods.” None of them say what Blackwoods is, but the reveal is pretty great: it’s a giant, elaborate film studio, like Pinewoods, that has been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The reveal of the studio, with the kids climbing a giant pirate ship and the camera slowly tracking backwards, is a triumphant moment and easily the biggest emotional beat of the entire movie. It’s the culmination of the previous thirty minutes of the movie, which transitioned from the stuff of nightmares to the cuddly territories of ’80s-era Amblin movies (complete with soaring score, kids on bicycles riding hooded sweatshirts, and the vague threat of extreme malevolence). While they’re at the studio, they see a tow truck pulling in, dragging a sedan with unusual cargo in its trunk: a woman, bound and gagged. Kids being kids, they decide to descend into the park to try and rescue her. Instead of helping the poor woman, they get found out and escape with their lives, but just barely. Victor leaves behind a flier for his family’s missing cat, and, well, things go from bad to worse, as the “monster” child from the movie’s prologue systematically hunts down the kids one by one.
It’s the movie’s antic third act that really takes the wind out of the movie’s sails. Up until this point, “Among the Living” (a title borrowed from a 1941 Susan Hayward horror movie) had been serviceable but unexceptional. In the third act, the rails come off completely. It’s messy, it’s gory without ever being gratifying, and it makes absolutely no sense. How, for example, does the giant albino monster-child, who walks around naked save for a rotted Halloween mask (his penis is some kind of inverted pouch), find out where the other two kids when Victor’s address was the only one on the missing cat flyer? And how is he able to sneak around and squeeze into such tight spots when he is a hulking figure that looks like the waxy yellow zombie from “Return of the Living Dead?” You’d think, at the very least, he’d be noisier.
When the creature showed up at the various kids’ houses, we thought that the movie’s quality might take a severe upturn, especially when Dan’s section involved a hot but clueless teenage babysitter. With “Inside,” the filmmakers were able to make the close quarters of a house feel infinitely more claustrophobic and showed an amazing sense of imaginative invention in how people could be chased, sliced, and killed within that space. But in “Among the Living,” this is the section of the movie that dissolves into pure, unfettered tedium. “Because it’s cool” is never a reason for anything to happen, and yet that’s the only explanation for anything that happens in this section of the movie, including why the family confronts the mutant killer gas-men back at the abandoned movie studio. This could have been a perfect, meta-textual opportunity for the directors to comment on horror movies in general and their movie in particular. Instead, it’s a lot of people coughing up blood and slicing each others faces’ off, followed by a coda so sugary sweet that it gave us a toothache. That’s probably the movie’s biggest surprise: that the guys behind “Inside” finished up a movie this sappily. [D]