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SIMON SAYS: Top Five From the New Wave of French Horror

SIMON SAYS: Top Five From the New Wave of French Horror

Xavier Gens used to be cutting edge. Which is to say, he used to be a sign of what horror fans optimistically thought was going to be changing times. This was in 2008, mind you, back when Gens’s Frontier(s) was released in the US. Apart from catching on with American gorehounds in a big way (it seemed like you couldn’t get away from the title for the rest of the year), the Film Society at Lincoln Center singled Frontier(s) out as part of their annual Film Comment Selects program. Festival programmers used both Gens’s film and Inside, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s 2007 gutting chiller, as prime examples of a burgeoning new wave in French horror cinema. The cult success of Frontier(s) opened the doors for gritty dystopian French horror and science fiction films like Them, Martyrs, and even Inside, which didn’t come out in America until 2008.

If you believed the hype behind the film, Frontier(s) was the first sign that the French were re-inventing the generic wheel. This was an exciting prospect for horror fans bored of shit like teen-oriented remakes of ‘80s films like The Fog (2005) and The Stepfather (2009). If you believed the hype, then you thought the French were coming and that they were going to bring horror back to horror films and they were going to do it with ungodly amounts of blood and guts, too. These mythical films were talked about as if they were what “torture porn” films could have been like if they were filmed by vraie artistes and not brats like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie (Hey, this may not have been so long ago but it’s what many thought! The cult of The Devil’s Rejects had yet to form and people were still having a great time kicking Roth around for being a mouthy, exploitative huckster.).

Too bad Frontier(s) isn’t very good.

I’m reminded of this salient fact because Gens has a new film out this weekend, one that he hasn’t yet publicly disowned (he didn’t have such a good time making Hitman, saying that this bland video game was taken out of his hands by studio execs). The film’s called The Divide and it is also not a very good film, in spite of the fact that it stars The Terminator’s Michael Biehn smoking a stogey and doing his best Dennis Hopper impression.

Like Frontier(s) before it, The Divide is a grungy pastiche of a classic horror film; it is to Night of the Living Dead what Frontier(s) is to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In The Divide, the sudden impact of a nuclear explosion in Manhattan forces a group of survivors to pile into a subterranean shelter where they bicker shrilly, form cliques and devolve into monsters. In the film, Gens tries to prove that he can be even more cynical than his predecessors were, if that’s imaginable. So instead of the black guy getting shot and killed at the very end, the black guy gets shot and killed about midway through the film while his murderer’s silhouette is hidden behind an American flag; take that, Romero!

Still, there’s one thing about The Divide’s current limited NYC engagement that has me excited: it’s getting exactly the kind of roadshow release that such a film deserves, namely a limited midnight-only engagement at the Landmark Sunshine.

(A brief tangent: This is the kind of clever event programming that the Sunshine used to regularly take chances on as far back as, oh, 2007 and 2008, incidentally. At that time, the Sunshine tried midnight showings of contemporary horror movies like Midnight Meat Train (which is pretty fun in a dopey way, incidentally). That film was sandwiched between older midnight movie fare like A Boy and His Dog and Night of the Creeps (Before the latter film was even released on DVD!). Now, the Sunshine typically shows Jurassic Park, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Goonies, though there are an encouraging number of cult films in their upcoming slate of midnight movies (The Room and Cruising being the most exciting of the bunch). End tangent.)

Horror fans should be excited about new horror films. So seeing The Divide play a couple of midnight showings at the Sunshine is an encouraging sign that somebody out there knows what they’re doing with the film. Just wish The Divide was, you know, good.

Though maybe I expect too much from Gens. He may end up being an important filmmaker in the long run because of the way that Frontier(s) and maybe The Divide helped to keep the presence of new French horror movies in the public eye. After all, while The Divide now has a small theatrical release, Livid, Bustillo and Maury’s sloppy but effective follow-up to Inside, still hasn’t gotten a theatrical release beyond touring the international festival circuit (midnight audiences ate Livid up when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September).

So if you go see The Divide and you’re hungry for more (and hopefully better) Gallic fare, try these on for size:

For people that just can’t stand gore: Them (2006). This spare, based-on-a-true-story house invasion film is so gripping that people still maintain that, even though its plot is pretty much pure formula storytelling, The Strangers is somehow a rip-off of Them. Them’s just that good.

For anyone that doesn’t mind gore so long as it means good chills: Inside (2007). Really one of the best films of the recent spate of French horror flicks and one whose vision of the post-urban apocalypse is uniquely expressed via a relentless, feature-length chase where a pregnant woman plays Roadrunner to a very violent murderess’s Wil E. Coyote. Creepy, claustrophobic and very grisly.

For fans of bone-headedly macho stories of the post-apocalypse: Eden Log (2007). If you like watching a mute amnesiac with a caveman mentality scramble around the ruins of a futuristic commune, then you’ll probably dig this.

For the fans of Humanoid comic books and stories about men with God complexes: Dante 01 (2008). Delicatessen co-creator Marc Caro directed and co-wrote this acid-soaked story about a schizophrenic mental patient that saves the universe by transforming into a human glow stick. It’s not very deep, mind you, but Dante 01 is kind of fascinating. Though only kind of.

For anyone looking for something a little stronger, shall we say: Martyrs (2008). If you still haven’t seen this one, don’t read anything else about it. Go in blind and expect to be totally drained in the end.

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