Since MARTYRS, THE HORDE and L’INTERIEUR, the prospect of watching a modern French horror film has filled me with dread - but in the very best way. While I can’t say I enjoyed any of the above there’s certainly an integrity to the modern French horror movement (they’re bound to call it a movement, aren’t they? or at least their critics will) that means that anything that comes from those shores is at worst worth a watch and at best something really special.
LIVID is a film that falls somewhere between those two pillars. It’s the follow-up to L’INTERIEUR from writer-directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo and while their previous movie had no supernatural elements LIVID plays out like an uneven fairy tale, but the kind you might have found in the Pan Book of Horror Stories, which is interesting as apparently the film was originally going to shoot in the UK.
There’s definitely a distinctly unpleasant, British feel to the opening of the film. Lucy is on her first day as a community nurse. She’s taken around the patients by the older Mrs Wilson and their day culminates in a visit to a huge crumbling mansion on the outskirts of town. Here, seemingly confined to her bed with an oxygen mask over her face and being transfused what looks like black blood, is the ancient Mrs Jessel. Mrs Wilson lets on that there’s meant to be a fabulous treasure hidden somewhere in the house, and later that night Lucy and her fisherman boyfriend Will and his friend Ben come back to steal it.
So far, so ordinary, and as if to emphasise the traditional horror elements of this first half there are even a couple of in-joke nods to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and, of all things, HALLOWEEN III. But Mrs Jessel has trained in dance at the Tanzacademie in Freiburg and if you don’t know what that means then you need to go back to Dario Argento school right now. Once they break into the house and find rooms filled with grotesque tableaux composed of taxidermy specimens, culminating in Mrs Jessel’s seemingly dead daughter, the film takes a turn for the truly weird and gory. The significance of all those missing children posters we saw at the beginning of the film gets explained, too.
Well, I say explained, but in fact the last half an hour of LIVID doesn’t actually let you understand what’s going on - it just presents you with life in the Jessel house as it is at the moment when Lucy and her friends break in. There’s a laboratory and flashbacks to a dance school and some bloodstained ballerinas all mixed in with a lot of oddness and horror, and the atmosphere is terrific. I’m not a fan of confusing or pretentious horror cinema but I thought LIVID was rather more pleasingly ambiguous. I have no idea what actually happened at the end or what was going on at various points during the proceedings but I did get the feeling that the film-makers knew but were leaving me to work it out for myself. Even if you don’t like that kind of thing LIVID has a certain kind of decaying Gothic European atmosphere nailed perfectly, and for that alone it’s worth watching. In fact out of all the films I listed at the start of this review, this is probably the only one I would want to watch again.