Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Leave Le France! Chapter 3: Death By Saw

A little while ago, France became the place for nasty little David Fincher-esque shockers, paying lip-service to giallos and slashers alike. One proto-slasher in particular, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, seems to be the influence de jour. Though these movies are a little more like Mario Bava films (or even Sergio Martino films) in their structure, vileness and color they share Tobe's knack for harrowing and creative violence. Tobe didn't quite have the resources to produce something as lurid as Shock or Blood and Black Lace, even if his movie was much better and much more inventive than anything Bava ever touched. These new school guys, however, have the resources to make something as nasty and claustrophobic as Texas Chainsaw and as thoughtfully designed as Opera. The quality is about halfway between that of the differing source materials, making up for logical inconsistencies with stylish onslaughts of crowd-pleasing violence, but I'd still take Texas Chainsaw anyday. I will say this, both of these films are better than The Devil's Rejects.

Haute Tension
By Alexandre Aja

Haute Tension or High Tension starts in a car, like 90% of home invasion horror films. Marie is going to meet her friend Alexia's family in their country house. This includes her mother, father and little brother Tommy. They settle in, have dinner and for no other reason than Alexandre Aja thought it was cool, we watch Marie masturbate. Then a man in a creepy old truck shows up. He kills Alexia's father when he comes to the door by taking his head off using a bookshelf and the railing on the stairs. Then he goes upstairs stabs her mother to death. Little Tommy is shot trying to escape and then the old man makes off with Alexia tied up in the back of the truck. Marie stows away, apparently unseen by the ancient murderer. The man makes a quick stop at a gas station and Marie sees her opening. She and the killer play cat-and-mouse in the gas station (the attendant is killed with an ax) and the old man leaves before she can sneak back inside the cargo. She calls the police, but they don't seem too anxious to help, so she tears off after him in the gas clerk's muscle car while a Muse song plays for no other reason than Alexandre Aja thought it was cool. She flips her car over not two minutes after the chase begins and then things take a weird turn. Marie takes a piece of wood with barbed wire wrapped around it and stops the killer, but then she chases after Alex with a big circular saw (again, Alexandre Aja thought it was cool) and then we have one of those identity switcheroos so popular in thrillers. This film's international title was originally Switchblade Romance, for no other reason than Alexandre Aja thought it was cool, as there's a noticeable paucity of both switchblades and romance.

Like Eli Roth and Quentin Tarentino before him, Alexandre Aja is a film geek and he wants you to know how many films he's seen. He's seen Torso, he's seen The Shining, he's seen Texas Chainsaw, he's seen Halloween, he's seen Zombie, he's seen Maniac, he's seen Blue Velvet, he's seen 'em all. Does that make his film better? Tough to say. If he didn't have all these visual quotes, he probably wouldn't have half the things he wanted to say. That means his movie depended on all the other films he's seen in a Tarentino-esque way, in a way that makes me think he didn't have a story so much as a laundry list of films to crib from. The story is so thin (which I'll gladly write off to Aja not having any money) that I feel like the film is made of influences, rather than being propped up by them. It doesn't matter where your enjoyment of the film is concerned which is directly proportional to how much you like tension punctuated by gruesome death.

And that's all there is to it really. Unlike À l'intérieur, the film gives you a reason to care about the characters, just not the ones that live past the 15 minute mark. So because we know that Marie has a friend that she's looking out for (or so we are led to believe) it becomes easy to root for her. The switcheroo kinda takes the fun out of the tension we just sat through, but I guess Aja was just looking for a change in the usual formula (actually, that we don't get more needless sex than we get is something I'd like to thank our auteur for. One of the few things that Aja eschews that his masters were prone to include was the usual pre-marital sex that precedes most deaths by dismemberment in a film of this variety. Of course, you take out the sex and you make this film about violence for violence's sake, which isn't really anything I feel great about, either).

They did the whole "or so you thought!" ending in that film Identity (which makes it too much like a courtroom thriller for my tastes) and it bugged me then, too. Can't we ever just watch some real shit happen to people. It's like some existential test, like it's important that we consider that perhaps nothing is real and that it's all in our minds. The French are some dark fellows, alright, which brings me to….

By Xavier Gens
All throughout À l'intérieur people make reference to the 'violence in the streets' as there's some unseen riot going on somewhere in France at the time. I like to think that their talking about the riot that starts this film. Yasmine and her brother Sami have gotten mixed up with Yasmine's ex-boyfriend Alex and two of his thuggish friends, Tom and Farid, who are at the heart of the riots. Every synopsis I've ever read says that they're looting during the riots, but I really don't see it like that. Or anyway, Xavier Gens doesn't make it seem like that. Yasmine's pregnant, so I suspect that she was after an abortion on the wrong side of town when the riots broke out. Either that or they were just protesting with everyone else. I'll come back to the confusion in a minute. Regardless of the why, they're being followed by the police who shoot Sami, mortally wounding him. Tom and Farid flee the city while Yasmine and Alex drop Sami off at the hospital. Tom and Farid stop at a little B&B by the border.

Things go great at first, cause one of them gets laid, but things take a nasty turn when we figure out that the inn is run by a bunch of incestuous Nazis. Tom and Farid receive one of the many deaths the film has in store for them. In most films, teenagers are there to get killed. In Frontière(s) they're there to get brutally murdered over and over and over again. I swear everyone in this film has nine lives. Anyway, it comes out shortly enough that everyone at the inn is a fucking lunatic. When Alex and Yasmine show up expecting to meet up with Tom and Farid and instead find themselves chained up in a pig pen while a burly fellow tells them about the birth of the new master race, it comes as more than a small shock. Would you bet that the baby inside Yasmin's stomach might prove a valuable commodity to a closet Obersturmfuhrer with a pig farm, a shit-ton of firearms and family of freaks at his command?

After that the film becomes approximately a series of very nasty murders and half-murders. People are shot, table-sawed, blown-up, stabbed, cooked alive, meat-hooked and basically mistreated all night and into the day. There's a Texas Chainsaw style dinner, a pit of incestuous rat babies, and a completely ludicrous bunker (if something ever cried David Fincher, it's that bunker) beneath the hotel. In fact, if I could pick a word for all this sorted violence it would have to be just that, ludicrous. It's a little Looney Tunes-esque in the way it refuses to simply be rid of some characters. They get chewed up, spat out, and they’re back again for more. You see the set up, go "Oh, really? That old gag?" then someone falls on the saw, or they lock the oven doors or whatever stunt that Bugs Bunny did better. And if it weren't so off-the-wall it would be a much harder film to watch. When I watched this the first time I started to suspect that I'd become nearly oblivious to movie violence. The character of the violence is really all that can be played with anymore and because this has a bit of a darkly comic character it was easier to take in than say Suspiria or The Last House on the Left. That aside, there is an awful lot of violence, so, if you have a sense of humour about that then by all means dive in. If you like a little plot with your violence, you may do to look elsewhere.

And before die-hards get all up in arms, yes I know about the left-wing subtext. I know that the riots are caused by a right-wing election, I know the nazis are meant to be a counterpoint in society, I know Yasmine wants an abortion to spare being raised in a society of fascism, and oh how ironic that is, I know all that! That's also how I know that Yasmine and Alex weren't just looting, they were doing something left-wingy, I'm just not sure what. But I don't see that someone who puts so much time and effort setting up that tablesaw gag can really then be taken all that seriously. This isn't a political film; sure, it starts as one, and there are some asides of a political nature, but what it really is a much better French Saw film. If you'd like a lesson on how to make a political horror film, watch Ken Russell's The Devils, or less subtly Joe Dante's Homecoming or John Carpenter's They Live. Whatever else may be said of them, they keep their politics constantly at hand; they don't bring it up when it suits them. This is a film about people being butchered creatively. As that, a slate-grey film about zany homicide, I liked it, but that's what it is.
I think there's definitely something to the simple foreignness of foreign movies to increase your enjoyment of them, if you follow me. To see the French play with Texas Chainsaw is almost always more satisfying than watching Americans do it because they come from a different perspective. They have an effortless style, if no couth, and can appeal to youths and adults in a way that teenage butchery of stateside origins cannot. They've long been leaps and bounds ahead of the majority where film is concerned and it wasn't long after Aja's debut that American horror films took on the simultaneous sheen and grit of their European cousins. It's worth mentioning that the majority of the major studio horror remakes of the last decade were done by Europeans. Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), Dennis Iliades (The Last House on the Left), Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th), Martin Weisz (The Hills Have Eyes 2), Olivier Herschbiegel (The Invasion), Eric Valette (One Missed Call) and Jaume Collett-Serra (House of Wax) are all working inside the American studio system. Gens was almost immediately imported to direct the movie Hitman based on the video game of the same name. They all made better films back home and none of those films needed a remake, but there you have it. I think it sort of funny to think that in order to remake classic genre films, they look to people who thoughtfully synthesized them. Not satisfied with paying tribute, they seek to utilize the influence of said films into box-office numbers by turning them into name brands. Violence begets violence, and for the best in violence, Americans look to France, but only to reproduce horror, not to create new horror. Studios are like the family in Frontière(s), they can’t make their own children in the image of their ideal, so they must use outsiders to do it for them.

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