French director Kim Shapiron's Sheitan is a really odd movie. It's both fascinating and frustrating and it works just as well as a black comedy as it does a literal horror film. Parts of the movie seem to have been inspired by better known pictures like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance but Chapiron makes the film its own animal with more than a little help from Vincent Cassel, who delivers a completely insane performance.
Three young men – Bart (Olivier Bartelemy), Thai (Nico Le Phat Tan), and Ladj (Ladj Ly) – head out on Christmas Eve to a nightclub called Styxx. Bart gets into a fight with one of the bouncers who breaks a bottle on his head and so they leave. One of the bartenders, a pretty Arabian girl named Jasmine (Leila Bekhti), comes with them as does a cute country girl named Eve (Roxane Mesquida). After ripping off a gas station (where the attendant is watching a Jean Rollin-inspired vampire movie starring Monica Belluci) Eve says that they can go back to her place in the country and hang out for a while. The group agrees, and off they go.
On the way to Eve's house, they wind up having to stop the car when a heard of goats blocks the road. Bart gets out to help move them along and a huge sinister looking goat with black hair and large horns bites him. Soon a man named Joseph (the always amusing Vincent Cassel of Irreversible) shows up and helps them on their way when they discover that the car has been bogged down in the mud. Eve tells her new friends that Joseph is the housekeeper, and that he and his pregnant wife live with her. When they arrive at her home, they remark that it's quite fancy but the reality of the situation is that it is more than a little rundown. It was once probably quite beautiful but now it's dirty looking and very weathered, leading one to wonder if Joseph really is much of a housekeeper at all. The group settles in for the night, noticing all of the dolls that litter the home. Eve tells them that her father was once a doll maker and that what they see around the house is his old stock.
Joseph shows up again, and takes an instant liking to Bart, but starts calling him Marc instead of by his real name. He insists on taking Bart to the hot springs where he tells him they can skinny dip. Bart is understandably uncomfortable with this idea but after convincing everyone else to come along, they all head to the springs. Along the way, Bart notices a pretty redhead who Joseph introduces as his niece, Jeanne (Julie-Marie Parmentier). She's very aggressive towards Bart, and later when they start roughhousing at the springs she pulls out a piece of his hair along with a chunk of his scalp. When the group heads back to Eve's home to dry off and have dinner, the group discusses religion and Joseph tells them a story about a man who made a deal with the devil. When he asked the devil to make him invincible, in return he had to impregnate his sister and at the stroke of midnight, expect the devil himself to show up and give the child a gift. If things weren't strange enough already, they certainly get a whole lot more bizarre as the night goes on as Joseph and Eve let their true nature come to light.
The movie starts off with a text screen stating 'Don't forgive them, Lord, for they know what they do,' and the religious symbolism is piled on pretty thick for the rest of the movie, starting with the characters exiting from The Styxx (are they, in fact, crossing the River Styx when they do this, therefore arriving in Hell?). Joseph tells his story about the man who made the deal with the devil after the house guests bring up religion. Bart mentions how he doesn't believe in anything only for Eve to counter his comments by asking him why he's there with her. The early scene where Bart is bitten by a goat (a common symbol for the devil) seems to target him for Joseph's unusual attention, and the goat makes a second appearance later on in the movie towards the end. Is Joseph the devil? Is Eve? Is anyone? Does the devil exist in the movie at all or are the locals just plain crazy?
What's the significance of Ladj and Jasmine explaining their Muslim heritage and Islamic beliefs? Why did the goat choose Bart to bite instead of one of the other characters? The very title of the film, a reference to the Islamic devil, would allude to the fact that there's more to the picture than simply some lunatics terrorizing a few obnoxious teenagers but, intentionally or not, the movie doesn't explain what that is. The film leaves you with plenty of food for thought and it can be interpreted in a few different ways – is Joseph Eve's father? Are the rest of the young people running around the house his other children or his relatives? He does say that Jeanne is his niece, are the whole lot of them inbred relatives? Why does Joseph call Bart by Marc instead of his real name? Is it a reference to the Mark of the New Testament who was killed by those who he intended to preach the word of God to or is it referencing the fact that once he was bitten the goat he was, in fact, marked? Is there a significance of setting the film on Christmas Eve and then later, Christmas Day?The film leaves almost all of this (and a lot more that this review won't go in to for fear of spoiling the picture) unanswered, but it is almost better that way. Leaving things open to interpretation as it does, the film can mean different things to different people with different belief systems which makes discussing and dissecting it all the more interesting.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you don't want to try and interpret the many oddities that pepper the film, Sheitan can be just as easily enjoyed on a surface level. Vincent Cassel completely steals the show with his over the top performance, and is at times hilarious and horrifying (sometimes both) as he chews through the scenery. The rest of the cast also does quite well. Roxane Mesquida has an innocent sexiness to her that works well for the character in that we can understand why two of the three guys really fall for her, but she's also very clever looking and her performance brings this across. Olivier Bartelemy is decent in his important role as well – we shouldn't like his character as he's a bit of a meathead but you can't help but feel sorry for him as the movie goes on. The house where the bulk of the film takes place is a perfect setting for a horror film. There are plenty of shadows for strange things to hide in and the abundance of partially finished dolls really lends a weird vibe to the whole thing. There's style to spare, a few nasty gore scenes and plenty of dark humor. Enjoy it on whatever level you see fit – it works both ways.
Tartan's 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't flawless, but it's perfectly watchable. The main problem is that during the darker scenes there are some noticeable compression artifacts that dance around just a bit. On top of that, there's some mild motion trailing here and there (indicating that this could be an improper PAL to NTSC standards conversion). Fine detail is pretty decent, you're able to make out a lot of the oddities that are tossed into the background of the various rooms in the house where the bulk of the movie takes place. The scenes that take place outdoors look just a little crisper than those shot inside, possibly due to the lighting used in the production. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural, though some of the color reproduction is on the flat side (though given the rather sepia toned look of the movie, this was probably done on purpose).
Regardless of which audio mix you choose – French language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound or French language DTS 5.1 Surround Sound – you're in for a treat. Both tracks are very aggressive, particularly when the music kicks in, and your subwoofer is in for a pretty serious work out. At the same time, as strong as the bass is, it never really buries the performers or the sound effects. There's a fair bit of rear channel surround activity that adds a lot of ambience to a few of the more important scenes in the movie, while the quieter moments are left sounding appropriately sparse. Optional subtitles are provided in English and in Spanish.
The only substantial extra feature on this release is a making of documentary that runs for just under a half an hour in length. Cassel appears on camera for a large portion of the running time, narrating things here and there and providing some unusual commentary but there's really not much of a context here and while it's nice to see some behind the scenes action, we don't honestly learn all that much about the picture. We do see some bits and pieces of a couple of different short films that the film crew made and we do learn a little bit about how these people wound up working with one another but very little is offered in terms of where the ideas for this movie came from or about the themes that the story toys with. Other than that, Tartan supplies the original trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Tartan home video releases, animated menus and chapter stops.
As much a black comedy as a horror movie, Sheitan is a whole lot of twisted fun. Cassel's performance is completely over the top and, when coupled with the truly strange nature of the story and the visuals, it all makes for a genuinely unique experience. Tartan's DVD could have looked better and a little more effort in the extra features department would have been appreciated but the sound is quite good and the movie itself is strong enough that this release comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.