The Pack

cast: Yolande Moreau, Emilie Dequenne, Benjamin Biolay, Philippe Nahon, and Matthias Schoenaertz

writer and director: Franck Richard

80 minutes (18) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Icon DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Paul Higson

The Pack

Your reviewer suspects that he may not have been in quite the correct viewing mode for Franck Richard’s oddball horror film The Pack (aka: Le meute). Pushed for time I would have liked to have given it a second shot, it’s not as if it is overlong, and, furthermore, I have the inkling that this is a film that unsaddles you on first viewing and grows on you with repeat visits. What can be admitted with some certainty is that the story jumps around with undeniable eccentricity, characters are unquestionably quirky and the dialogue crackling, so something other than the film must have been preventing me from getting me into it.

The film’s own deterrents are few and, for example, I don’t want to see people caged and tortured again, as they are in The Pack. But even as I snarled at the sights of manacles and straps and bars and torture chairs, I found myself thinking less of their nascent kowtowing to a current trend but instead bowing to 30-year-old sleazy entertainments like John Russo’s Midnight (1982), and Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell (1981).

It doesn’t rest in the past though. A combination of the skittering storyline, stylistic flourishes and the odd postmodern rewind mean that The Pack is at the same time a persuasively fresh experience. Going in cold there is some uncertainty as to what kind of film it is ultimately going to turn out to be and this creates the problems on first viewing. How straight is it? How seriously should I take it? Is it going to remain earthed in torture-porn territory? Questions nag and it’s more fantastical turns, and slapstick entering the frame latterly, is a joy but, on first screening, it takes a while to kick in and it is possible to settle into a more sombre mood of bleak expectations. Not that the about turn into fantasy brings any happy endings, but it does grant us a tonal shift.

Charlotte Massot (Emilie Dequenne) is travelling alone along rural country lanes in France, at the wheel of her car, her belongings crammed into the back of the vehicle. She has the determined look of someone who can look after herself. Outsider appearance, chugging a cigarette, unperturbed by the suggestive taunts of a biker gang, the viewer might be right in putting themselves on guard. She has that cold air that might just hint of a female serial killer. When the biker gang follows her she takes on a hitchhiker, Max (Benjamin Biolay), and when all meet at a roadside diner trouble flares. The bikers turn their attention on challenger Max with a threat of buggery across the pinball machine but are interrupted by the shotgun wielding proprietor, La Spack (Yoland Moreau, Séraphine). Max later goes to the toilet and vanishes. Charlotte investigates, finding no obvious alternative exit but what appears to be a fake wall. She parks up nearby and waits until La Spack leaves the building but instead finds a trap awaiting her.

Max is La Spack’s only surviving son, the others having died in a mining accident. Together, they farm lone travellers, holding them in cages, force-feeding them a black gruel and strapping them to a chair device that draws their blood and so weakening the victims. One of their prisoners is despatched almost immediately while Charlotte watches as he tries to escape, leaving her with a jabbering Asian in a cowboy outfit, repeatedly asking for John Wayne.

Charlotte’s vulnerability gnaws during this chapter. Having initially identified with her spiritedness and strength, she is outweighed by her captors. Max towers over her and doesn’t flinch at any of the death and nastiness. La Spack, despite her frumpiness, is revealed to be a former wrestler and so no easy combatant either. They brand her and Max seems unmoved, though an offering of a single plum in the night is a sick hint that he has taken a shine to her.

Retired but never completely inactive, local policeman Chinaski (Philippe Nahon) had also noticed the attractive Charlotte and taken her contact details based on her original concern for the missing hitchhiker. When he is unable to contact her, he suspects the local diner proprietor and begins to investigate further. So far, this comes across like a French remake of Russo’s Midnight with added wit, but promising to be as thoroughly downbeat.

There comes now a change of direction. This is not just another cannibal eating-house movie. We find out the real reason for this human-food factory and the madness that shores the behaviour of the antagonists. The story delves into creepier fantasy territory, and a movie monster that invokes the zombie Freudstein in Lucio Fulci’s The House By The Cemetery (1981), Armando de Ossario’s eyeless Knights Templar, and a more sluggish variant of the cave dwellers of The Descent (2006). These bloodthirsty creatures which substitute the sons of the ex-wrestler can only live on a slag heap and weaken when the Moon wanes.

Chinaski seems to get the upper hand of the villains and the film closes with the siege of the slag heap shack for which the director brings back the three ‘motards’ (motorcyclists) to make up the numbers for the goring. The film succeeds in being comical, but sometimes over-eggs the silliness, and at other times is too down and dark. There are peculiarities of dialogue, structure, character and tale, and several smart unexpected turns. During the closing siege one of the three motards sits in terrified denial with his head in a book that is obviously not being read as it is upside down. He maintains that position, refusing entry to the horror, even as the flames lick and the creatures break in. Every character is rewarded with some prime dialogue. Chinaski, when essaying on the sexual mores of the young today comes out with: “They fuck anything these days… old, young, fish, fat…”

At one stage there is an intriguing jump forward and then an immediate rewind to explain one surprising turnabout event. But the film is also intelligent enough to linger on certain moments and emotions to full effect, allowing the duress and rage full pelt at other important points in the tale. Now that I am assured as to the playfulness of the film, identifying it as the tremendously absurd Gallic Gothic that it is, I can likely enjoy it more on a second outing, to which I look forward. There were no extras provided with the screener.