Wednesday, December 12, 2012

French horror evening: Frontiere(s) and Humains: DVD reviews

Two recent French horror films caught up with on a stay-at-home, sick Tuesday evening: Frontiere(s) and Humains. Both, it happens, involve innocent protagonists abducted by bad guys who hope to use their women for purposes of breeding. In the case of Frontiere(s), the bad guys are a clan of Nazis, who have been hiding out in a remote French hostel; one of them is actually an aging German war survivor who, we are asked to accept, has been secretly attempting to repopulate the master race for some 60-odd years, but has run out of  fresh genetic material, since he never leaves the hostel, and in-breeding doesn't appear to be an option. He does have two attractive daughters, but they mostly come in handy for seducing tourists, who appear to be a food source for the family (cannibalism, unlike in-breeding, is apparently okay; for people with an alleged taste for purity, this is one singularly degenerate bunch). His attempts to mate one of his sons with a previous female captive have produced only mutants. When a group of mixed-race, part-Arab thieves, fleeing riots in Paris, stumble across the hotel, hoping to hide out, the Nazi Dad proves more than willing to overlook the genetic impurity of the female among them, if it means furthering the interests of the Master Race; he becomes delighted to discover that she is already pregnant...
Remarkably, of the two films, Frontiere(s) has the more believable premise. In Humains, the bad guys are a surviving tribe of Neanderthals, who have run entirely out of women; they can't even in-breed. A group of anthropologists - including French mainstays Philippe Nahon and Dominique Pinon - arrive in the remote Swiss valley where these Neanderthals have been hiding, doing the things that Neanderthals do - painting on the walls of their caves, hunting with spears, fashioning a Stonehenge-like burial ground, grunting. Our protagonists must find a way to evade capture, and then, when their women get taken, to get them back... Humains belongs to the survival horror genre that I so love - its references are Deliverance and Rituals and The Hills Have Eyes, as opposed to Frontiere(s)' constant mining of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hostel (and maybe to a slight extent Kichiku Dai Enkai). In addition to boasting a talented cast and some terrific landscape photography, Humains is actually the more original of the two films, reading as a valid, new entry in its subgenre, while Frontiere(s) ends up seeming highly derivative, borrowing chunks from movie after movie.
Alas, much as I wanted to like it, this originality is not enough to save Humains from the fundamental absurdity of its premise. The concept of surviving Neanderthals is so ridiculous that when the film finally reveals them, any ability to be scared or suspend disbelief goes out the window; it's like Quest for Fire has suddenly waged a Mel Brooks-like invasion from the next theatre over. The film was enough of a failure in France when released in 2009 that there has been no region 1 DVD release; I'm fond enough of survival horror films that I picked it up as a European DVD, but having seen it - though I was amused throughout - I can't really recommend anyone go through that much trouble, unless you're really into cavemen. 
Frontiere(s), however, is worth a look. It is, as I say, almost entirely derivative, and doesn't do as much as it could to mine its latent political meanings; had the youths been rioters or activists, as opposed to mere criminals, the confrontation with Fascism would have been that much more loaded, and the degradation, humiliation, and so forth they encounter at the hands of the Nazis could be read as being the pit at the bottom of a slippery slope they'd gotten on, and perhaps given the film the aspect of being a cautionary political warning, or a parable about racism, or such. It would have deepened the meaning of the ending, as well - I won't reveal the final images, but they're poignant, among the best moments in the film. As it is, tho', Frontiere(s) is still superbly crafted, and achieves a pretty stunning level of brutality (enough so that it apparently was given an NC-17 rating in North America). And its slickly made, with great gore effects; Humains seems to flinch from its violence, a bit - not that it would have improved matters much to see Dominique Pinon actually get impaled on a spear, but Frontiere(s) wins a certain level of respect for going for the gusto.
I should add, however, that I had cause to wonder while watching both films if the versions I was seeing had, in fact, been trimmed; some of the mutant cannibalism in Frontiere(s) flickers on the screen so briefly that you wonder why, given Xavier Gens' obvious enthusiasm for gore, we don't get loving closeups of the mutants munching away; Humains, meanwhile, fades to black at various points, not always subtly, making one wonder if big chunks haven't been removed at the last minute from whatever the director's intended version of the film was.

I need another good European horror film or two - preferably French or Belgian - to hold in reserve for my next sick day. Anyone got suggestions? I've done Them and Inside and In My Skin and Trouble Every Day and Calvaire... what else is out there?


Chris Churchill said...

Nice! want to see Humains
5 Underrated French Horror Movies a list I put together :D

Allan MacInnis said...

Chris - link doesn't seem to work...

Allan MacInnis said...

People can see Chris' list here:

I don't know a single one of these films!