From Art House To Slaughter House: 10 Great Works Of French Horror by Jonathan McCalmont

One of the greatest errors one can make in compiling a list of great films is assuming that said list is in some way authoritative or eternal. Cinema’s relentless churn of new titles means that these types of listings can quickly become laughably incomplete. Incomplete not only in the sense that great films might well appear after the formulation of the list, but also incomplete in the sense that they fail to recognise changes in the critical order.
Cinematic and literary genres are in a constant state of flux. Genre formulae and canons are not fixed; they are constantly challenged by new and innovative works that invariably invite not only imitation but also the re-examination of older works that were once considered little more than creative cul-de-sacs.

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For example, a list of great horror films compiled during the heyday of drive-in horror during the 1950s and 1960s might very well have recognised the importance and influence of works of German expressionist cinema such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), or Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920). But a list drawn up during the era of slasher films in the 1970s and 1980s would have probably ignored expressionism in favour of films such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).

As a result, I make no claims as to the universality and permanence of this list. I positively relish the idea that at some point in the future someone might look at it and consider it hilariously old hat, as this would mean that the critical agenda had been moved on by some great future works of horror that are probably not even in production yet. This list then, is simply a selection of ten French horror films that I consider to be important, interesting and/ or worthy of your time.

As Mark Hartley suggested in Not Quite Hollywood (2008), his documentary about the ‘Ozploitation’ films of the Australian ‘new wave’, a healthy horror scene is frequently indicative of a an unhealthy and unbalanced film industry. Horror films are traditionally made for very little money and with relatively inexperienced directors who make the most of lurid subject matter and formulaic storylines to secure high returns for their investors whilst learning their trade as directors. A glance at the history of French cinema will reveal art house and mainstream traditions healthy enough to ensure that French film makers have never needed to pass through the crucible of genre filmmaking before maturing artistically. As a result, older French horror films tend to be either part of the art-house tradition or part of the trans-European tradition of 1960s and 1970s exploitation films centred not in France but in Italy. My first three films are examples of the output from this historical context.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher (aka: La chute de la maison Usher, 1928)
Director: Jean Epstein

It is impossible to over-state the importance of early 20th century art movements such as German expressionism and surrealism to the development not only of horror as a cinematic genre, but of genre cinema as a whole. The fantastic relies upon a depiction of reality that is both stylised and distorted by things that do not exist in our world and to depict such a vision of reality requires the development of a certain kind of cinematic vocabulary: a set of signs that communicate to the audience that the world of the film is not their world.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher brought together two of the silent era’s most interesting and ground-breaking stylists. Jean Epstein was influenced by German expressionism, but he was also a film theorist who would devise new techniques and methods whilst making his silent films. His assistant director (who later walked away from the project) was Luis Buñuel, a surrealist who made his mark with Un Chien Andalou (1929), before becoming one of the most influential and respected directors of the 20th century, producing films such as Belle de Jour (1967), and Exterminating Angel (1962). The result of this truncated collaboration was a silent work of gothic horror which, while less well known than Murnau’s Nosferatu, and Paul Wegener’s The Golem(1920), is arguably their equal.

The film is an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same name and its plot involves a triangle of use, abuse, consumption and destruction comprising a couple and their fallen down ancestral home. As H.P. Lovecraft once put it, the Ushers and their house seem to share a single soul, drawing strength and support from each other like psychic vampires until the entire edifice comes crashing down.

Epstein brilliantly imbues his film with a tangible atmosphere of dread. The house itself is a triumph of set dressing: from the outside a gothic country pile, on the inside an aircraft hanger full of weird pieces of furniture, billowing curtains and sinister candelabras. Epstein’s camera-work is mesmerising as the camera zooms about the place and remains focused on Roderick’s (Jean Debucourt) face as he races through the house upon learning the death of his wife. Also spectacular is the funeral procession through the house and the blasted moors around it.

The film’s only failings lie in its sometimes puzzling interpretative decisions. Rather than having Roderick, and Madeleine (Marguerite Gance), be brother and sister, Epstein has them be a married couple, thereby depriving the film of the story’s incestuous undertones. Also regrettable is the fact that Epstein shifts Roderick’s hypochondria onto Madeleine and makes her much more of a pretty object than an equal partner. Indeed, Epstein seems to link the house much more closely with Roderick than it does with Madeleine and so the final destruction of the house is all about the collapse of Roderick’s mind than the death of the final members of the Usher bloodline. Buñuel reportedly left the production over issues of interpretation and it is easy to see why as Epstein’s is somewhat idiosyncratic. However, these problems notwithstanding, The Fall Of The House Of Usher remains a gem of the silent era.

Spirits Of The Dead (aka: Histoires extraordinaires, 1968)
Directors: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini

Take a long look at that list of directors. With the possible exception of the collection of operatic music videos Aria (1987), there has never been an anthology film that boasted such cinematic potential. Unfortunately, this collection of short films based upon stories by Edgar Allen Poe only partially lives up to that potential.

Roger Vadim’s take on Metzengerstein kicks things off. Vadim began work on the film immediately after shooting Barbarella (1968), and the similarities between the two films are striking. Beyond sharing a star and a writer, in the shape of Jane Fonda and Terry Southern, the two films also share the same camp aesthetic. Metzengerstein was never going to be an easy film to adapt as its story of a depraved German noblewoman who falls in love with what she cannot have is so absurd that many Poe scholars suggest that it was an intentional satire of the gothic genre. Vadim’s adaptation does not disappoint on this level as it sees Fonda strutting about the place wearing a series of absurdly anachronistic and revealing outfits. She cavorts with men. She cavorts with women. She cavorts with horses. Oh Lord, how she cavorts! The result is as close to camp perfection as you can imagine.

Louis Malle’s take on William Wilson is a marked improvement due largely to the strength of the source material. Alain Delon plays an evil man who acquires an identically named doppelganger. As Wilson moves through life, he finds his evil plans being repeatedly thwarted by a mute, ghostly, and yet accusatory presence. This pushes Wilson further and further into depravity until eventually tipping him over into homicidal madness. Malle reportedly never felt much affection for the film but he manages to produce a number of memorable images and does very well indeed with the descent into madness.

The final film in the anthology is undeniably its strongest. Federico Fellini strips out the guts of Never Bet The Devil Your Head and casts Terence Stamp as a jaded, spoiled and self-destructive Toby Dammit whose ego is stroked by so much adulation that he comes to see himself as invulnerable. Visually striking and disturbing in a way that neither of the other films manage, Toby Dammit is a twisted journey through a hellish and hallucinatory demimonde of drugs, celebrity and paedophilia.

Spirits Of The Dead is very much central to the French horror tradition as it unfolded during the 20th century. It brings together art-house directors, lurid subject matter and the gothic, forging a link between Epstein’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher and films such as those by Jess Franco.

Female Vampire (aka: Les avaleuses, 1973)
Director: Jess Franco

Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco is one of the kings of European exploitation film. Franco’s career has spanned over 40 years and 200 films though many of his early films are associated with the French company Eurocine. Female Vampire is the story of a mute aristocrat who, because of her family heritage, is forced to feed upon her sexual partners. This conflicted nature effectively traps her between a desire for solitude and self-destruction and a need for sexual stimulation and some sort of companionship. The film is shot in a mesmerising collision of styles that draw both from the artistic and the pornographic. The Countess (Franco habituee Lina Romay) wanders through beautifully shot landscape wearing only a belt and a cloak before draining people of their ‘hormones’ during oral sex in a series of sexual set-pieces. Fascinatingly, the film has been released under a number of different titles (including The Bare-Breasted Countess, and The Swallowers) and in a number of different cuts. Some cuts included hardcore pornographic material and played up the erotic elements of the story, while others minimised the sex scenes and emphasised the loneliness of the central character. This shows not only a wonderfully pragmatic attitude towards one’s work, it also shows the extent to which filmmakers were playing around with different genres in the 1970s, and how a slightly different cut could change a film from being a story of alienation and despair to being an excuse for some woman to wander around with her breasts hanging out. The film taps not only into the European exploitation film tradition, but also lays down some aesthetic roots which would bloom again with films such as Kim Chapiron’s Satan (aka: Sheitan, 2006), and Xavier Gens’ Frontiers (2007), exploring similar cocktails of art, sex, death and bad taste.

While French cinema has traditionally steered clear of the horror formulae popularised by American directors, it has produced some wonderful examples of one of horror’s more prestigious and intellectually credible subgenres: the psychological thriller.

Les Diaboliques (1955)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Directors from the war-time generations of France, Japan and Germany carry a heavy historical burden. Those who did not flee their homelands frequently found themselves collaborating in order to find work. For example, Jean Cocteau, the writer and director who made Beauty And The Beast(1946) worked in the theatre throughout the war and was said to be a sensation at Nazi cocktail parties. However, because Cocteau never appeared to make films about current events, his collaboration is but a foot-note to his career. Henri-Georges Clouzot went the other way. His fourth film Le Corbeau(1943) was made at the Continental Film Company, a studio set up by Goebbels to keep the population entertained given that American films were banned from French cinemas. What makes Le Corbeau such an ambiguous film is that its story of a town gripped by panic and paranoia by a series of poison-pen letters can be read as both an indictment of those French who informed upon each other, and as a criticism of a population that might turn to anger and violence were it not for the intervention of a strong external jack-booted leadership. The film can be read both ways with equal ease and either way, it displays an incredibly sour view of human nature, a view that Clouzot would carry over into Les Diaboliques.

The film is set in a small suburban boarding school. The school is run by Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), a sadistic and tyrannical man who keeps children and teachers alike in line with his explosive temper and cruel tongue. He is married to the owner of the school, the elegant but frail Christine (Vera Clouzot) but he is carrying on a very public affair with the pleasingly coarse Nicole (Simone Signoret), one of the other teachers. Interestingly, neither woman seems to have very much affection for him at all. In fact, what affection they have seems to be directed at each other (though, of course, the film never explicitly states that they are lovers). Seeing their opportunity over a school holiday, the two women drown Delasalle and move the body in an old laundry basket. However, before they can dispose of it, the body disappears. Then clues start to turn up suggesting that Delasalle might well be very much alive. The tension ratchets up superbly until a wonderfully iconic and genuinely terrifying denouement which sees a new couple form and a new haunting begin. Clearly for Clouzot, even love is a bargaining chip in the eternal quest for self-advancement.

The Tenant (aka: Le locataire, 1976)
Director: Roman Polanski

Based upon a novel by Roland Topor (a founding member of the famous surrealist Panic Movement that also included Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arabal), The Tenant is a twisted exploration of the limits to which one can push oneself in order to fit in. Trelkowski (Roman Polanski) is a quiet and self-effacing young man who moves into an apartment recently vacated by a woman who attempted suicide. Initially pleased with his new digs, the tenant soon becomes incredibly anxious about the noise complaints he receives from his neighbours. A social gathering nearly provokes his upstairs neighbour to violence while even moving a piece of furniture is enough to illicit a symphony of wall-banging from neighbours on all sides. Consumed by guilt and fear of being thrown into the street, Trelkowski cuts himself off from friends and starts to descend into a state of complete paranoia about how he is perceived by his fellow tenants. This paranoia rapidly spirals out of control and Trelkowski is driven insane as his identity and that of the previous tenant start to bleed into one another, resulting in hallucinations and fantasies that become increasingly bizarre and grotesque.

Cinematically, the film is astonishing. Polanski’s film Repulsion (1965) experimented with optical illusions and Polanski returns to the same box of tricks in this film for a fantastic fevered dream in which the proportions of the apartment are made to appear gloriously wrong. Also brilliant is the way in which Polanski portrays Trelkowski’s inner turmoil over his relationship with his neighbours. In one scene, a friend shows him how to deal with neighbours by turning his stereo on full and then berating a neighbour who dares to request the sound be turned down on account of his wife’s illness. Polanski is so anxious and uncomfortable that he nearly squirms his way up the wall. The ending is also something of a cinematic milestone for its iconic lack of sense.

Eyes Without A Face (aka: Les yeux sans visage, 1960)
Director: Georges Franju

The film revolves around a brilliantly gifted surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) who kills beautiful women in the hope of transplanting their faces onto his disfigured and much loved daughter (Edith Scob). A daughter who lives sequestered away from the world in the doctor’s house, her scarred face hidden behind a mask. What is most remarkable about this film is the absolute realism of the characters.

The surgeon is no mad scientist, he is simply a talented man driven to doing horrific things out of a love for his daughter. Similarly, his assistant (Alida Valli) is driven to help him out of devotion to the scientist who saved her face with a skin graft. The daughter is sad and isolated but she is not insane or wracked with grief. She is just… unhappy. Georges Franju’s decision to root his horrific goings on in real human emotion can be somewhat disconcerting as, within minutes of meeting the characters we completely understand them. Indeed, the first time I watched the film I spent its entire duration waiting for the other foot to drop but no foot came, only a hauntingly strange film with moments of body horror so shocking in 1960 that audience members were said to faint during the film’s premiere.

This clearly has thematic links with another of Franju’s famous works, his documentary about a day in a slaughterhouse entitled Blood Of The Beasts(1948). The documentary is influenced not only by the fantastical imagery of the expressionist tradition, but also surrealist works such as those of the nature filmmaker Jean Painleve. The film shows us, in graphic detail, how animals are slaughtered for the table, and Franju draws explicit parallels between the industrialised killing of animals and the industrialised murder of humans by the Nazis. A similar set of parallels can be seen in the surgeon’s gruesome medical experimentation and his huge collection of guard-dogs but also, and more interestingly, in the horrifyingly mundane nature of his psychological state. Just like the butchers who whistle and sing to themselves whilst slitting throats, and the concentration camp guards who claimed to be simply following orders, the surgeon of Eyes Without A Face murders people simply out of love for his daughter. It is not an insane love, or a love that is larger than life, rather it is the kind of love that all fathers feel for their daughters. Franju’s point is that the Holocaust did not require superhuman monsters or maniacs. All it ever required was normal human people in the right kind of situation. A situation which, presumably, could arise at any time…

As the last three films demonstrate that, while many French filmmakers may have steered clear of traditional works of cinematic horror, they were not above allowing elements from the horror genre to filter through into otherwise mainstream and art house films. In the February 2004 issue of Artforum, the critic James Quandt coined the term ‘New French Extremity’ to refer to an increasing number of transgressive French films that drew their inspiration from sources such as the transgressive novels of Georges Bataille and films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló (1975). Films such as Francois Ozon’s Sitcom(1998), Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer (2001) and Jacques Nolot’s Porn Theatre (2002) all set out to deliberately violate taboos and push back the boundaries of what could be shown in a conventional cinema. Not only did these filmmakers follow the likes of Franco in juxtaposing artistic cinematography with explicit sexual imagery, they also drew heavily upon the horror genre for their depictions of violence. For example, Marina de Van’s spell-binding In My Skin (2002) deals with the issue of self-mutilation and culminates with images of the protagonist tearing away chunks of her own flesh with her teeth, the kind of image that would be perfectly at home in any zombie film. Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) involves a couple suffering from a rare illness that pushes them into a world of sex and blood that is similar to that of vampires. Meanwhile, the plots of Gaspar Noe’s films Irreversible (2001), and I Stand Alone (1998), can best be summed up by the critic John Clute’s definition of horror: ‘descent into bondage’.

As wonderful and as shocking as some of these films are, one cannot really say that they are works of horror. But they have inspired works of horror. Indeed, the last few years have seen an explosion in French horror films. Films that are violent and terrifying and which draw not only upon the taboo-breaking groundwork laid by the new French extremity, but also classic American horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. The last four titles on this list capture the essence of this new and dynamic wave of films.

Switchblade Romance (aka: Haute tension, 2003)
Director: Alexandre Aja

Switchblade Romance is the film that kick-started the current wave of French horror films and it is interesting to note how much of those films’ DNA is included in Alexandre Aja’s work. The film begins in a country house where Marie (Cecile de France) is staying with her friend Alex (Maiwenn le Besco) and her family. Marie is masturbating in her room when she hears a sound downstairs. Going to investigate, she witnesses a large man with an obscured face brutally murdering Alex’s family before dragging Alex away and locking her in his van. Marie gives chase and sneaks into the van in the hope of freeing Alex. But who is the man with the obscured face?

Switchblade Romance is notable not only for its levels of tension and incredible violence but also its no-nonsense approach to plot. Where many horror films spend an eternity introducing you to characters and delivering backstory, Switchblade Romance jumps almost straight into the action. However, this is not to say that the film is shallow. Aside from the genre conventions that the film plays with, it also through its use of imagery and its plot development manages to say a number of interesting things about gender roles and how one perceives one-self. For example, is a willingness to use violence an inherently masculine trait and, as a result, are women who decide to use violence more masculine than those who don’t?

Most intriguingly, Aja adopts an art house posture towards his audience. Rather than explicitly spelling out the film’s ideas and message through exposition, he allows the audience to draw its own conclusions and concoct its own ideas. This, along with the film’s awareness of the sexual politics of horror, has proved to be a hugely influential approach to the material.

Them (aka: Ils, 2006)
Directors: David Moreau and Xavier Palud

Clocking in at a disciplined 74 minutes, Them quickly establishes its characters Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) as wealthy childless French people working in Romania. It then launches into a tightly wound home-invasion story. Most horror films have an ‘ebb and flow’ structure through which the director allows tension to build before dissipating it and starting the process again. However, Them departs from this structure by refusing to allow the tension to dissipate at all. Instead, David Moreau and Xavier Palud string together a series of technically flawless set pieces in which the tension builds and builds and builds before changing gears and shifting to a much darker and cerebral tone. Them is not a film about the cathartic scream and relieved laugh. It is a film that keeps you on a knife-edge of terror by stimulating the fight-or-flight centres of your brain for a solid hour. When the film changes gears it allows a little bit of exposition to creep in. We learn that the invaders are a gang of children and we learn that their motivation for hounding the couple is not money or sex but simply the desire to have fun. When Clementine finally corners one of the children he mournfully asks her “why won’t you play with us?” as though this completely justifies the gang’s actions. As with Switchblade RomanceThem relies on the audience to work out the film’s disturbing conclusions. It seems to rest upon two very real and contemporary fears.

The first is that with a dropping birth rate, more and more westerners grow up having never spent any time with young children. As adults, many of these people then decide to live their lives free of children. For an adult who has no experience of dealing with children, the un-socialised and undeveloped childish mind can be a terrifying thing; a child’s inability to see things from an alternative perspective to their own becomes a psychopathic detachment. A child’s unreasoning demand and refusal to follow the rules of adult society becomes an almost psychotic form of anti-social behaviour. When the Romanian child asks Clementine why she would not play with them, he is representative of a clash of cultures between the world of children and the world of adults.

The second source of social unease lies in the perception of eastern Europe by people in the west. Even though the Yugoslavian wars are long since finished, and the ‘Iron Curtain’ long since rolled back, there is a perception that eastern Europe is still some kind of primitive ‘heart of darkness’. A place filled with violence, darkness and horror. This is a perception tapped into (albeit in a much cruder fashion) by Eli Roth’s Hostel series, as well as films such as Layer Cake (2004), which give the most dangerous of killers an east-European accent. In theory, people in the west should be able to do as Clementine and Lucas do and sell up their expensive property in order to buy something larger in the east, but the perception is that most of the immigration made possible by the European Union consists of people from the east coming to work in the west. Clementine and Lucas’ decision to travel in the opposite direction runs in the face of a lot of fear and prejudice…

Inside (aka: À l’ intérieur, 2007)
Directors: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury

French cinematic history tends to repeat itself in quite an interesting fashion. In particular, the tendency for French film writers to ‘cross the floor’ and become sensational directors. The French ‘new wave’ began when the likes of Fran�ois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette decided to make their own films and the tradition continued with Olivier Assayas who made the same journey during the 1990s. However, these were all serious critics writing for venues such as Les Cahiers du Cinema. Alexandre Bustillo, on the other hand, crossed the floor from the French equivalent of Fangoria, a magnificent publication known as Mad Movies.

Inside follows the trend of Them and Switchblade Romance by having a short (82 minutes) running time and little or no exposition. The film starts with a brutal car crash that leaves Sarah (Alysson Paradis) a widow. A few months later, we find the heavily pregnant Sarah heading home for Christmas. She has turned her back on her friends and on the kindness of strangers and is all alone at home. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door and a strange woman (Beatrice Dalle) tries to gain entrance to Sarah’s home. A woman who appears to be stalking Sarah… A woman who is standing above Sarah with a huge pair of scissors while Sarah is sleeping… A woman who wants to take Sarah’s baby from her…

The film is drenched in gore almost from the second that Sarah wakes up. The violence is horrific, explicit and sustained but the directors never for a second allow it to tip over into farce thanks to a frankly majestic control of tone and atmosphere. The entire film is suffused with a deeply unpleasant feel that goes some way to explaining many of its apparent plot holes. How did the strange woman get into Sarah’s house? How can she be such an effective fighter that she is able to subdue not only Sarah but a number of people who drop by to investigate what’s going on? How can she keep coming after taking so much punishment? The answer seems to be that the strange woman is not really there. Instead she is a manifestation of Sarah’s guilt at having survived the crash while others didn’t. Sarah’s depression also suggests a degree of wish-fulfilment in her masochistic fantasies: will someone not come and take this bloody thing out of her? The film eventually relents and allows some exposition to creep in as we learn that the woman is another crash survivor but, as Alex lies on the stairs covered in her blood and the blood of others, we have to ask: how much of this is down to stylised violence and how much of this is outright fantasy?

Martyrs (2008)
Director: Pascal Laugier

Martyrs opens with young girl named Lucie fleeing down the side of a country road. She is dirty, battered and bruised; a shuddering husk of humanity, hollowed out by bottomless suffering. Never understanding why she was kidnapped and tortured, the young girl devotes her adult life (played by Mylène Jampanoï) to tracking down the people responsible. She finds them living as a normal suburban family. The violence she unleashes upon them is cathartic but it also seems to tip her further into madness, as even her friend and companion (Morjana Alaoui) starts to fear that she too might be in danger. As the corpses pile up, the question remains: why was this done? What motivated these normal people to torture a child? The answer is found in the basement of the house as the mystery surrounding the abduction starts to unwind.

To a certain extent, Martyrs reverses the trend of recent French horror cinema. Films such as Them and Inside are technically and thematically focused. There is not a shot or a scene out of place. Very little time is wasted on wider contexts or the kind of human drama that flows from solid characterisation. To a certain extent, their characters are universal in their lack of definition. We pick apart the details of their lives and the significance of their suffering in our own time, not on the directors’. Their on-screen existence is defined by their capacity to shock and terrorise. However, while Martyrs is undeniably a technically brilliant horror film filled with both style and substance, its true capacity to shock and terrorise comes not from what it shows but from what it says. This is a film that contains much more exposition than either Them or Inside. In fact, it is a film that revels in its exposition as a violent and tension-filled first half gives way to a second half that focuses less on violence and more upon suffering. In effect it constructs a world and a vision of human nature that are both utterly dark and utterly inescapable.

Drawing upon imagery that owes as much to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) as it does to the goings on in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Martyrsexplores the capacity of the human mind to not only withstand torture but also to inflict it. Indeed, the film’s deliberate use of religious language and its suggestion that the old systematically abuse and mistreat the young by imposing their ideologies upon them even conjures up the political rape of Pasolini’s SalóMartyrs not only sets the benchmark for French horror, it sets the new benchmark for all horror films. It is spectacular.