I happened upon two very different, but equally stylish French horror films recently and these really show up the dull slasher flicks that American horror cinema has devolved into.
First up is Amer, an homage film to the giallo sub-genre of the 1970s. Giallo is an Italian style of horror film popularized by Dario Argento. The most popular of his work are Suspira and Deep Red, and both films are exemplary of the characteristics of giallo: stylish camerawork, extended murder sequences with excessive amounts of blood, an operatic style of drama, and gratuitous nudity and sex. As a result, giallo are very much style without substance, but still fun nonetheless. Deep Red is an especially interesting giallo take on the Hitchcock motifs.
In Amer, the directors take a more psycho-analytical approach to the genre. Almost completely dialogue free film, the story is told in three vignettes about Ana; first as a young girl, then as a teenager, and finally as a adult. In the first vignette, we’re treated to the most atypical giallo. Ana is visiting the home of her recently departed grandfather and listens in on her parents arguing about the mysterious. veiled housekeeper still living in the estate. The story goes into traditional horror with the fear of the dead rising and some very creepy camera work. The second part feels the least giallo, but still visually rich. The teenage Ana begins to realize the shift in sexual power that has occurred between she and her aging mother. Where once her mother was a great beauty, its Ana who is catching the eyes of men now. In the final vignette, adult Ana has inherited her dead grandfather’s mansion and spends the night there, clearing things out for the trash. During her sleep a black gloved figure carrying a straight razor appears and terrorizes her.
Amer is a wonderful example of the roles editing and sound design play in films. Early on, when Ana enters the bedroom of her deceased grandfather, the sound of the incense as it crackles and burns at his bedside is a tangible element of the scene. Keys snapping bolts shut are singular sounds in a silent landscape. The most excruciating sound comes when a razor blade scrapes across teeth, but it achieves it goal; to make us squirm violently in our seats. Unlike your typical giallo films, the subtext is where the meat of Amer is. Giallo are typically close to grindhouse cinema. The surface is about all there is. Here, because of the marked lack of upfront narrative, it falls on the intelligent viewer to decipher the symbolism. In many ways it reminded me of the kaleidoscopic films of Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, Don’t Look Now), where everything is about subconscious meaning.
Now we completely shift gears to Sheitan, a horror film that references that urban fear of the rural. It’s tried and true (and becoming very banal) plot to have a group of sexed up teens or 20-somethings travel to an ominous spot in the countryside and be menaced by the local cannibalistic monstrosities. However, Sheitan has two things going for it: It’s French and Vincent Cassel is in it. The story follows said group of young people who meet Eve, a girl their age who invites them to her house outside of Paris. It takes all night, but they get there and encounter Joseph (Cassel), her properties caretaker. From there, things just get weirder and weirder, with the only real gore coming in the final 15 minutes.
Sheitan was totally luck find. It came across as a recommendation on Netflix, saw Cassel was in it, said what the hell. I am so glad I did. Cassel is brilliant in this film, he takes what American cinema has degenerated into a lifeless boring killing machine, and injected the movie monster with charisma and personality. I found myself laughing hysterically at his socially awkward, constantly grinning and jovial shepherd. The other characters in the cast perform their functions well, they are meant to be unlikable. This is an interesting twist, where we have no reason to root for the self-absorbed, obnoxious protagonist, but can’t help loving the obvious villain of the piece chew up the scenery.
Shetian is also a great example of ambiguity in European cinema, even used in a piece that is aimed at a large audience. In the States, our horror films have an annoying penchant to explain the motivation of our movie monsters. Here, we don’t know exactly why Joseph does what he does, but there is enough implied and, if you pay close attention to the juxtaposition of dialogue and scenes, can extrapolate a cohesive understanding of this rural community. There are still parts that remain unexplained, but that is what makes horror a great genre, when you allow it to leave the big questions unanswered. I can say with confidence that the ambiguity of Amer and Sheitan have burnt them into my brain and I will definitely think back on them for a long time.