"One day, someone said, 'Men are born with equal rights.' The world in which I live is the opposite. Who would want to be born to grow in the chaos and the hate?" - Yasmine
When the initial lineup for last year's After Dark Horrorfest--the second annual festival of "8 Films to Die For"--was announced, it included this French chiller (aka Frontiere(s)), which debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. But the film was dropped, apparently because it didn't meet an R rating; the festival CEO said they didn't want to "sacrifice the artistic integrity of this beautiful film" by editing it. But the general thought in horror circles was that the movie was just too good to be included in an otherwise average (at best) group of films--especially since a separate theatrical release in unedited form was promised.
On May 9, the film was released theatrically in 10 cities (2 theaters apiece), followed four days later with this DVD release. Needless to say, many horror buffs like me have been chomping at the bit--for a long time--to see this.
When Frontier(s) begins, France is facing upheaval as an extreme right political party is winning the presidential elections, causing unrest in the streets. Race riots are also erupting, causing further chaos and prompting the former government to enact a curfew. It's a tumultuous start given added punch when you consider its inspiration: Director Xavier Gens says he decided to make this movie after a frighteningly similar incident in 2002, something he called "The most horrible day of my life."
That's when extreme right French political candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen--founder of the National Front Party, which some people describe as neo-Fascist--advanced to the second round of the presidential elections (in 2007, he finished fourth in his fifth bid for the French presidency). Le Pen is anti-immigrant, and has a track record of making racist and anti-Semitic statements; he has been accused of being a historical revisionist and Holocaust denier, calling the gas chambers "just a detail in the history of World War II." It's a sentiment he repeated as recently as April of 2008.
But I digress...this is a horror film, not a history lesson. It is this tumult that envelops the film when we meet Yasmine (Karina Testa), a young woman who is three months pregnant. She is involved with a group of men who have just completed a heist that has left her brother near death. Along with ex-boyfriend Alex (Aurélien Wiik), cocky Tom (David Saracino) and shy Farid (Chems Dahmani), Yasmine is determined to flee the city and head toward Holland to have an abortion, the right taken away from her in France. The group is soon split up, with Tom and Farid the first to arrive at a hostel near the French border (frontière) as night falls.
Awaiting them is a suspiciously vacant establishment run by some oddballs: sexy Gilberte (Estelle Lefébure) draws the ire of meek Klaudia (Amélie Daure), while wall of muscle Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan, who you may remember from the fabulously French Brotherhood of the Wolf) strikes an imposing presence--and seems a little too interested in Farid's religious beliefs. The visitors flirt with the women, then watch a TV news report on the political storm, which fires up Tom: "Fascist country...I told you that France was 10 years behind the USA. Here it comes, finally now we have our own George Bush."
We then meet Karl (Patrick Ligardes), another muscle mass whose entrance sets the fear in motion, forcing Tom and Farid to fight for their lives. Soon, Yasmine and Alex arrive to meet their friends, but instead they meet three more of this spooky clan: young Eva (Maud Forget), who shares a connection with henchman Hans (Joël Lefrançois), and has something in common with Yasmine; and the father of the Von Geisler "family" (Jean-Pierre Jorris)--who kinda looks like (guess who!) a slightly svelter Le Pen. Shortly after we notice a Nazi picture on the wall, the s#!* hits the fan for our remaining travelers--and the movie goes into horror overdrive.
The result is an entertaining effort for genre buffs, gore fans and those who like a spirited, scary ride. But I have to admit my slight disappointment. That may have a little to do with my anticipation for the film. Perhaps my expectations were too high, especially with some of the fabulous French efforts that have put the American horror landscape (remake! remake!) to shame, like Inside (À l'intérieur), High Tension (Haute Tension) and Them (Ils, which seems to have a lot in common with the upcoming American release The Strangers).
Like those films or not, they are at least a little different and unique (especially the first two). And while this film sets itself up to make some powerful political statements through the horror, it ultimately feels too familiar. It resorts to clichés we've seen numerous times (getting "rescued" by a stranger driving a car...come on!), falling back on a lot of the staples of the "torture porn" craze popularized in the Saw and Hostel franchises. The four lead characters here are all likeable--despite the criminal edge, they have a sense of purpose and aren't "bad guys" that deserve what happens to them. But I wish there was a little more depth and screen time for some of the potential victims.
There are similarities to many other films as well, like The Descent, Deliverance, Night of the Living Dead and even High Tension. But the most obvious influence is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series and all of the movies it helped spawn, like Slaughterhouse (Hans = Buddy!), Motel Hell, Wrong Turn and Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I've seen enough of those "demented dinner" scenes where a freaky family forces a victim to eat with them. The political undertones (echoing both World War II and today) take a backseat as the movie becomes another story of a woman fighting for survival, struggling to defend herself as she confronts her own capacity for violence.
Freaky (but familiar) dinner party
Gens (who went on to make Hitman, released in the United States before this film) noted that he used a lot of "shoulder camera and a shutter-effect technique which created a sort of medieval light, which gave the idea of a story out of time." There are a lot of frantic edits, shaky camera work and claustrophobic close-ups, and this is visually a very dark film. The overall look and techniques used here remind me a little of The Hills Have Eyes remake (one that I loved), directed by another of Gen's influences--Alexandre Aja (who also made High Tension).
Don't get me wrong--this is a well-made, visually striking piece of work, far better than a lot of the horror films that we've seen recently. I loved the opening sequence (setting the politically tense tone), and the cinematography of Laurent Barès--combined with the production design of Jérémie Streliski and art direction of Olivier Afonso--is first rate, creating a cold, unsettling atmosphere that is horrifically beautiful. There's some effective symbolism, and some memorable shots that are quite striking (I loved the long shot of the frozen Tom, trying to squeeze through a tight space). And the score from Jean-Pierre Taieb is equally haunting.
As for the kills? Not for the weak of stomach, although this isn't the goriest film you will see. (One sequence in particular boarders on bad taste, and may be uncomfortable for some.) And while I don't think all of the violence is injected for no reason, some of the scenes are straight out of the TCM/Saw/Hostel school of torture just for torture's sake. This is a gritty, gruesome piece that excels in its excess, atmosphere and style, but don't expect anything too fresh from the plot, which becomes increasingly familiar in the second half, not quite fulfilling the promise of it's intriguing set-up.
Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 video, this is a very dark film. It frequently has a gritty, rough look, enveloped in blacks, with other shots presenting a cold, sterile environment bathed in blues and greens. It's never very sharp, but it's not supposed to be. Some of the "lighter" scenes are soft. I imagine this looks close to the director's intent, although perhaps a tad too dark in some spots for my tastes.
You can choose between 5.1 and 2.0 French Dolby tracks with optional English and Spanish subtitles. The 5.1 track is fantastic...right from the very first shot (Yasmine's sonogram), you're enveloped in sound. The film takes any opportunity it can to keep your ears involved, with simple touches like rain, wind, a crow squawking or dog barking--to more aggressive effects like gunfire. This isn't a supersonic movie by any means, but it uses what it has perfectly.
Sadly, beyond trailers for other DVD releases (and a full-framer for upcoming theatrical release Midnight Meat Train), there's nothing here. It's a real shame, because a commentary if nothing else would have been nice, and Gens has stated that there is at least one scene he deleted ("where the family cook one of the heroes").
This memorable horror entry straddles the fence between two worlds: it pretends to offer a political statement, but when push comes to shove it's another gory survival story that borrows from/pays tribute to (take your pick!) a number of other films. We've seen a lot of this before, and it ultimately doesn't have much new to offer. But Frontier(s) does it with so much style, energy and overall excess, it makes up for it and will please most horror buffs. An average genre film made with flair, this comes Recommended, getting a slight boost for it's aggressiveness.