FRONTIER(S) (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17 for Extreme Sadistic Graphic Violence and Gore

(French with English subtitles)

Directed by: Xavier Gens

Written by: Xavier Gens

Starring: Karina Testa, Aurellen Wiik, Samuel Le Bihan, Estelle Lefebure, David Saracino, Chems Dahmani, Adel Bencherif, Maud Forget & Jean-Pierre Jorris

FRONTIER(S) is another example of New French Extremity and had a rather rocky road to American theaters. This gorefest was originally slated as part of the After Dark Horrorfest 2007 (remember when that cool little experiment backfired?). However, it never hit screens in November 2007 because this film got slapped with an NC-17 rating for its sheer brutality. In May 2008, FRONTIER(S) hit 10 theaters and was quickly released onto home video a few days later. Besides being extremely gory and aiming to extremely disturb its viewer, FRONTIER(S) is also an extremely entertaining treat for horror fans!

After a right-wing candidate’s election sparks riots in Paris, a street gang plots to escape the city. To do this, they will need cash and they solve this problem by quickly pulling off a robbery. Yasmine (Karina Testa), Alex (Aurellen Wiik), Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani) decide to hide out (with their suitcase of illegally acquired cash) in a small inn near the border. However, this decision may have been their gravest mistake because the family-run establishment happens to be owned by a sadistic, inbred group of psychopathic neo-Nazis. Lots of gory violence ensues.

The premise of FRONTIER(S) is simple to a fault, but the script unsuccessfully attempts to pull off a half-assed message too. This mainly comes in the political backdrop of France being the starting point for this story, wherein the gang’s mistakes launch them out of the frying pan and into the fire. It’s clear that director/writer Xavier Gens was trying to make a statement by having one of the gang members be openly Muslim and cut to an awkward transition of a Jesus statue for no apparent reason. However, I don’t think he succeeded in this at all. He further makes the viewer shrug their shoulders by throwing in awkward transitions of landscape shots that slightly interrupt the film’s flow. This all being said, Xavier Gens’s FRONTIER(S) also succeeds in many different (more visceral) areas.

Though I suspect Xavier Gens tried to make this film as disturbing as humanly possible, I actually felt that FRONTIER(S) was a very fun thrill ride. Again, I don’t know if this film’s intention was to be entertaining from the get-to, but I definitely had a lot fun watching it. This script feels like a love-letter to 70s slasher films and shocksploitation cinema, while never really leaving a bad taste in your mouth. There are gallons of blood and gore, but these bits resemble 2003’s TEXAS CHAINSAW remake cranked up to 11. Be prepared for things to get ultra-gory, but also be prepared to be totally entertained. After all, this is a slasher movie that features crazy cannibal Nazi rednecks on the outskirts of France.

Though occasional stylish transitions can be jarring, the film’s cinematography is stunning. I don’t know what it is about the New French Extremity titles that I’ve seen so far, but French directors seem gifted with the slightly disturbing ability to film horrible things in beautiful ways. FRONTIER(S) is no exception as the viewer is thrust into the hellish inn (and a nearby abandoned mining facility) with a grim atmosphere. In almost every scene, the viewer can see every speck of dirt, bead of sweat, and gush of blood…and they’re all gorgeous.

The gang characters are a bit weak as Yasmine is clearly the final girl from the get-go and the only “good” person worth caring about. Karina Testa gives a great performance as this female protagonist trapped in a Nazi cannibal-filled nightmare. She gets her share of bad-ass heroine moments and delivers the best damn kill in the entire film (you’ll know it when it happens). Testa also receives a couple of scenes that reminded me of Marilyn Burns (from Tobe Hooper’s original TEXAS CHAINSAW). The other gang members are just lambs to the ultra-sadistic slaughter. It also doesn’t help that these three guys are scumbags and the viewer will most likely to be rooting to see their gory demise, rather than wanting any of these pricks to survive.

The performances are significantly better from the neo-Nazi family of psychopaths. It looks like Xavier Gens scoured the French countryside to find actual French neo-Nazi cannibal rednecks and then just hired them on the spot as actors. Each antagonist has a distinct look and colorful personality behind them. My favorite of the villainous bunch was easily super-muscular Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan) who looks like he could break a man in half with his bare hands and is legitimately terrifying. Patrick Ligardes doesn’t receive much screen time as the most calculating member of the Nazi bunch, but makes the most of his role. Estelle Lefebure rocks as a slutty, gun-wielding clerk. Meanwhile, Maud Forget is a bit too over-the-top as super-shy Eva and Jean-Pierre Jorris chews the scenery as the sick Nazi grandfather/head of the family.

FRONTIER(S) clearly wears its horror influences on its sleeves. There’s plenty of nods to TEXAS CHAINSAW and even touches of THE DESCENT, but this French film is gorgeous to look at and has lots of style. The story may not be original and the characters are mixed (lots of them are one-dimensional victims and villains), but this will thoroughly entertain gore-loving horror fans and packs plenty of memorable moments into its well-paced 108 minutes. FRONTIER(S) is basically THE FRENCH CHAINSAW MASSACRE and I mean that in the best way possible!

Grade: B+

IRREVERSIBLE (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

(French with English subtitles)

Directed by: Gaspar Noe

Written by: Gaspar Noe

Starring: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel & Jo Prestia

Often listed as one of the biggest examples of the New French Extremity movement, IRREVERSIBLE is an amazing feat of filmmaking. Originally pitched by Gaspar Noe as a tragedy done MEMENTO style, the film tells its deeply depressing story through reverse-chronological order. This means that we start the film with the end credits and end the film with an opening shot. It’s an artsy experiment that constantly keeps the viewer engaged, even when the story’s slower-paced beginning arrives at the tail-end of this emotionally draining experience.

Loving couple Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel), along with their best friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) go to a drug-filled, alcohol-fueled party. However, the night spirals out of control after bad decisions are made and a tragic chain of events sets off that will forever shape the course of these people’s lives in a matter of hours. Think of this artsy rape-revenge flick as a rewound story of revenge-rape. We see the ultimate outcome first, then watch the events initially spiraling out of control, and then go back to the initial build-up.

IRREVERSIBLE’s reverse-chronological narrative isn’t just a fascinating experiment from a cinephile’s perspective, but it also serves as a tool to keep the viewer constantly engaged in the narrative. We want to see how things wound up where they did and it’s a tense journey, even after we know the worst scenes have passed. The final 30 minutes of this movie (a.k.a. the first 30 minutes of the story) contain lots of foreshadowing and manage to make the tragic events even more tragic through small details. There’s one horrifying revelation that comes midway through (even though we already know what’s coming) that had me floored. It’s as if Gaspar Noe thought of every possible way that he could make this film as depressing as possible and then wrote them all into a single script. Still, the backwards-foreshadowing never seems over-the-top and further gut-punches the viewer’s already damaged emotional state.

IRREVERSIBLE’s cinematography is purposely erratic and wild. It’s like they gave the cameraman a cocktail of drugs and then told him to go crazy while filming. Characters have conversations as the lens zooms in on their faces and various body parts, and scans the background. Remarkably, this doesn’t feel distracting or nearly as pretentious as it sounds. Instead, this technique helps cement the viewer into the movie and blends right into the unconventional backwards narrative. The music score seems natural to the various environments (fading in and out of a club, playing in another room as a couple tease each other in bed), while the classical score at the end of the movie (beginning of the story) hits the viewer like a ton of bricks.

The performances come off as entirely natural and the dialogue almost seems ad-libbed. Monica Bellucci’s Alex is innocent and caring, making her fate even more difficult to watch (even though we’ve already seen it happen before we truly meet her). Vincent Cassel has a remarkable screen presence in nearly every role he’s taken, but his stint as Marcus just might be one of his all-time best performances. Albert Dupontel plays supporting character Pierre, but his story arc winds up as one of the most fascinating bits of the film. Dialogue from the beginning of the story (given during the final third) highlights just how much he evolves as a character over the course of the night.

If you haven’t already guessed, IRREVERSIBLE is a tough film to watch. One of the early sequences contains a graphic piece of violence that is highly disturbing. The detailed gore effect mixed with a faint lighting of a club and the wild camera work is downright cringe-inducing. The build-up to that moment is tense too as we see lots of sexually explicit shots and get the sense that some bad stuff is about to go down. This film is also notorious for a grueling 10-minute-long rape sequence. Even though Monica Bellucci is breathtakingly beautiful, director Gaspar Noe successfully makes this scene absolutely horrifying and it won’t seem the least bit erotic to any sensible human being (unless you’re a sicko or a possible psychopath). This haunting scene lingers long after its ended (even though nothing truly terrible happens in the final third of this film).

IRREVERSIBLE is a fascinating experiment in filmmaking and storytelling. If a fan were to edit this film in chronological order, I feel it would still make a deep impact. The reverse-chronological order adds to its depth and gets the viewer thinking about this rape-revenge tale in new ways (revenge-rape). The acting feels completely natural and the frenetic camera work adds to this film’s sheer artistic power, never once feeling pretentious or distracting. This film is amazing, but it’s not one that I’m likely to stick on much in my lifetime. IRREVERSIBLE is a work of art that repeatedly pummels the viewer’s emotions, sometimes in ways they least expect. To put it simply, IRREVERSIBLE is a stunning masterpiece of transgressive cinema!

Grade: A+

INSIDE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17 for Strong Bloody Violence, Gruesome and Disturbing Content, and Language

(French with English subtitles)

Directed by: Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo

Written by: Alexandre Bustillo

Starring: Alysson Paradis, Beatrice Dalle, Nathalie Roussel, Francois-Regis Marchasson & Jean-Baptiste Marchasson

Throughout the 2000s, French cinema underwent a radical movement known as “New French Extremity.” This cinematic movement featured filmmakers tackling dark, disturbing subject matter and then pushing it as far as they possibly could. The 2000s wave of transgressive cinema had plenty of dark dramas, but also left its mark with gore-soaked horror films. While the best of these French Extreme horror flicks is easily MARTYRS, I would argue that the second-best is home-invasion horror flick INSIDE. This movie is vicious. brutal and unforgettable.

After surviving a traumatic car accident that left her face scarred and her husband dead, very pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is miraculously one day away from giving birth to her baby. However, the mother-to-be soon finds herself in a night from hell when a crazy woman (Beatrice Dalle) breaks into her home. The menacing stranger wants the unborn baby inside of Sarah’s belly and will employ extreme means to get it. Her weapon of choice is a large, razor-sharp pair of scissors. A bloody struggle ensues between Sarah and the woman. As more people arrive at the house, more bodies begin to pile up.

To put it lightly, INSIDE is a brutal viewing experience. This is one of the goriest films I’ve sat through and also one of the most disturbing movies ever made. This is not happy entertainment, but it’s an intensely suspenseful and terrifying near-masterpiece of horror. You’ll likely want to avoid this film if you’re pregnant and I mean that in the nicest way possible. As a man who is incapable of carrying a child in my body, I was petrified and wincing at every cut/stab/slice. There’s one particular moment that always makes me grab my gut every single time I see it and it’s pure nightmare fuel. I can hardly imagine what an expecting mother might feel while watching this movie. INSIDE knows how to crawl under your skin and chill your blood. It does this for almost the entirety of its brief 82-minute running time.

The realistic gore and intense scenario wouldn’t hold up if there wasn’t a genuine talent behind the camera. Luckily, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo crafted this film in a classy way that only elevates its vicious impact. The cinematography is professional and beautiful, even when a white bathroom becomes stained with crimson bodily fluid. Bustillo’s screenplay also invites logical excuses for people to enter the house and quickly escalates scenarios in a mostly believable fashion. There’s one shocker of a scene early-on that left me floored and showed this movie wasn’t messing around. INSIDE is here to brutalize its viewer and masterfully succeeds in doing so.

The two main performances belong to Alysson Paradis and Beatrice Dalle. Paradis serves as the bloodied and battered protagonist, who’s trying to stay alive and save the life of her unborn child. Though Paradis’s Sarah has understandable moments of shell-shock and tearful breakdowns, she also has badass heroine bits in which she fights back with whatever is around her. Beatrice Dalle is intimidating as the mysterious woman who wants to cut Sarah open. Dalle does menacing like nobody’s business and comes off like a ferocious animal in many scenes. The tension between Paradis and Dalle’s performances only further push the suspense to an almost unbearable level.

Though it’s beyond stellar in many ways, INSIDE has three hiccups that keep it from horrific perfection. The first of these are frequent scenes of a CGI baby in Sarah’s womb. One of these serves as the opening shot of the film and others occasionally makes their way into tense confrontations. These bits distracted from the live-action struggle at hand and didn’t look nearly as professional as the rest of the film. The second problem comes in the arrival of a cop and a criminal. While their initial introduction is solid, these two make ineptly idiotic mistakes like fumbling with a flashlight and searching for bandages…while they should be escorting Sarah straight out of the house. Finally, there’s one moment in the final 15 minutes that feels oddly out-of-place. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Handful of flaws aside, INSIDE is one hell of a horror movie. This film doesn’t milk its darker-than-dark scenario purely for shock value, but is legitimately well made and builds a thick layer of suspense that is sure to make the viewer uneasy. INSIDE also goes to extremely nightmarish places that other scary movies wouldn’t dare touch. The final minutes will likely leave you stunned and are sure make a lasting impact on your movie memories. If you think you can handle it, I highly recommend INSIDE. Just be warned, this film isn’t for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs.

Grade: A-

FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence and Grisly Images, and Language

Directed by: Richard Raaphorst

Written by: Chris W. Mitchell & Miguel Tejada-Flores

Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury & Luke Newberry

Every time I say that I’m done with the found footage horror genre, about three different projects come along that reinvigorate my interest in handheld scares. FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY was one of these projects in 2013. The trailer looked neat and even though this was definitely a crazy idea to begin with, it looked like it might be a fun, gore-soaked thrill ride. I didn’t remember this film leaving much of an impression on me the first time around and decided to give a second go just to see if it was the mood I was in. Four years after my initial viewing, I walked away with almost the exact same impression, but I have reasoning for my mixed bag reaction. Is this found footage film worth watching? If you’re willing to forgive lots of problems, then my answer is kinda, sorta, maybe…

In the final stretch of WWII, a group of Russian soldiers receive a distress signal and decide to respond to it. This move is potentially deadly as it leads them behind enemy lines, but they take the risk anyway for their fellow countrymen. Upon arriving at the location, they discover a myriad of grotesque undead creations instead of Russian soldiers. These monsters all have various weapons attached to their hands and seem to be stitched together from decaying body parts. It turns out that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not a fictional novel and his grandson is carrying on his legacy in the midst of WWII. We watch the footage as the soldiers begin to get picked off one-by-one.

FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY is a film that asks you to extend your disbelief in a lot of ways. Obviously, there’s the insane set-up of Frankenstein’s grandson construction an army of bloodthirsty death machines in WWII. That idea is actually pretty awesome, but the film seems to ask even more of the viewer by executing its premise in found footage format. We’re supposed to believe that HD-level cameras existed back in WWII and that Russian cameramen were operating them in the midst of war. Sure, the film puts an occasional aged effect (film reel strip, the camera cracking, swapping the lens, etc.), but these seem like half-assed, last-minute additions in post.

This film’s found footage aspect is dumb, but it lends a walkthrough haunted house vibe to the material that would be lost in a traditional narrative. In this way, FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY’s scenario was truly a damned if they do (found footage) and damned if they don’t (traditional narrative). The film’s acting is pretty horrible too as the main cameraman Dimitri (Alexander Mercury) is an unconvincing, unsympathetic douchebag from the get-go. He verbally abuses his comically inept assistant Sacha (Luke Newberry) in the opening scenes and he never gets much better from there. We’re supposed to feel something for Dimitri later on as a few convenient twists come to light and there’s a clichéd talking the camera confession, but I wanted him to die from the first minute I saw him on-screen.

The rest of the Russian squad aren’t much better. Andrei Zayats is beyond over-the-top as a hot-headed, torture-happy soldier. It’s like Zayats watched every scumbag character from other movies and then combined them into a single paper-thin performance. Robert Gwilym is okay as the head sergeant, but his character is a dumbass who makes one of the single stupidest decisions I’ve seen in a 21st-century horror film. Joshua Sasse is the most likable, well-rounded Russian soldier, but the competition isn’t exactly fierce. Meanwhile, Karel Roden crazily devours the scenery as Frankenstein’s demented grandson. Roden makes every one of his scenes fun to watch because he’s clearly having a blast as this WWII-era mad scientist.

The real stars of FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY are the monsters and they are awesome. If for nothing else, these creatures are the sole reason you should sit through this film. These creations are all practical and brought to the screen with style. Giant propeller blades for heads, a “mosquito man” with a drill for a nose, a faceless monster that seems to have crawled straight out of SILENT HILL, and more freaky abominations lurk in the halls of Frankenstein’s secret base. These creatures are just plain cool to look at and dispatch the Russian soldiers in all sorts of gory ways. They even occasionally make for an effective scare and build tension as they come out of nowhere and swarm around the desperate characters. I would recommend checking out FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY simply for the “haunted house” thrill aspect of seeing these creatures in a first-person POV.

FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY is a monster movie that has dumb writing, far-fetched stretches in its storytelling style, and mostly terrible acting. However, the film delivers in its monsters and they almost single-handedly make up for the film’s many, many problems. These creatures are awesome to behold and effectively terrifying at points. To see them within the context of the film only makes them cooler to watch. This is a rare case where I’m recommending that you check out a film that’s lame in almost every category, but has one major saving grace: an army of bad-ass monsters. If this sounds like a goofy ride that you’d dig, then give this gory guilty pleasure a watch!

Grade: B-

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Action Violence, Peril and Frightening Images

Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Stephen Chbosky & Evan Spiliotopoulos

(based on the fairy tale BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont)

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McKellen & Emma Thompson

1991’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the latest in a long line of Disney classics to get the live-action remake treatment. Even though none of these remakes have been bad thus far, I was a bit more skeptical on this film because 1991’s animated classic is one of Disney’s best movies (whereas the original SLEEPING BEAUTY, JUNGLE BOOK and CINDERELLA aren’t exactly amazing). Surprisingly, I found myself delighted with the 2017 rendition of this classic fairy tale romance. It’s not a masterpiece like the animated film that it’s based upon, but this live-action remake is great nonetheless. Featuring creative liberties (to set it apart as its own film), fantastical visuals and brilliant casting, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is sure to win over viewers of all ages.

Set in 18th century France, the plot follows bookworm Belle (Emma Watson), an outsider in a small-minded town. Though the villagers sneer at her constant reading and intelligence, one person who admires Belle for all the wrong reasons is war hero Gaston (Luke Evans). This pompous, egotistical stud is determined to make Belle his trophy wife, but she rebukes him at every corner. When her inventor father (Kevin Kline) goes missing in a dark area of a nearby forest, Belle discovers that he’s been imprisoned by a hairy Beast (Dan Stevens) and offers to take her father’s place to grant his freedom.

Belle’s courageous act may just wind up reversing a long-standing curse on the Beast’s castle…as he must find true love to break the spell that imprisons him and the castle’s many inhabitants (who have been transformed into living inanimate objects). Will love spring forth in the unlikeliest of places? Does personality matter more than outward appearance? Will the spell be broken? Seeing as you’ve likely watched the animated classic or are familiar with this fairy tale, you probably already know the answers to all of those questions. However, that doesn’t lessen this enchanting fantasy-romance.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has great visuals for the most part. The various inanimate objects look cool and detailed, especially when they get to shine in musical numbers and a hilarious stand-off in the final act. The settings all appear real, even when the viewer is placed inside the Beast’s massive castle. Huge camera movements (panning out between towers and faraway places) lend a huge scope to this story and the atmosphere is appropriately fantastical. This remake completely nails the feeling of the 1991 original and the CGI is almost flawless.

The key word there being “almost” because Beast’s face looks unconvincingly cartoonish. This poor quality isn’t distracting to the point where it completely ruins major parts of the story, but there are moments in certain scenes where my mind went “that looks sloppy.” The effects on the Beast’s facial features are so mediocre that my mother (who never notices or cares about CGI) leaned over and asked me “Is the Beast’s face CGI?” upon first seeing him. The computer-animated Beast’s ugly mug sticks out, especially when compared to the beauty of everything else around him, in a unintentionally bad way.

That’s not detract from Dan Stevens as the Beast because his performance is true to the character. This remains the case when he sings a new song that’s original to this remake. Stevens’s solo “Evermore” is easily the best new tune added to the mix, while the rest of the fresh musical additions seem utterly bland and forgettable. This especially goes for “Days in the Sun” which seemed to be filling in for the far superior “Human Again” (which was added into rereleased versions of the 1991 film). Don’t worry though, because all the original beloved songs are included in this version and sung flawlessly. From the rowdy “Gaston” and high-energy “Be Our Guest” to the uplifting opener “Belle” and the beautiful-as-always “Beauty and the Beast,” this 2017 version captures the musical spirit of the original film!

Besides Dan Stevens as the Beast, the rest of the cast is packed full of A-list talent. Emma Watson (from the HARRY POTTER series and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) now joins the ever-growing list of live-action Disney princesses and makes a phenomenal Belle. Though she has an instantly recognizable face, Watson manages to disappear into the good-hearted bookworm protagonist. Kevin Kline shines as her loving father, with an added subplot that wasn’t in the original film. Luke Evans is perfectly cast as good-looking villain Gaston and Josh Gad is clearly having a blast as his sidekick LeFou. Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald and Gugu Mbatha-Raw all bring their voices to the main inanimate objects.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST isn’t perfect (like 1991’s animated masterpiece), but it remains a fantastic piece of magical entertainment nonetheless. Some scenes are directly recreated from the 90s classic, while new creative liberties have also been taken. Some of these additions work in the film’s favor, while a majority of the new songs are totally forgettable (with the exception of the Beast’s “Evermore”). The effects are spectacular for the most part, with the exception of the Beast’s distracting CGI face. Still, the film’s positives far outweigh its negatives. If you want a lively musical, an uplifting fantasy, emotional romance or good old-fashioned entertainment, then 2017’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST delivers on all of those fronts.

Grade: A-