13 Frightening French Flicks
Article By: Tony Timpone
“Vive le gore!” exclaimed the mantra of the aughties’ French-made horror movie explosion. From scissor-wielding murderesses to ax-swinging psychos to rustic cannibal clans, this assault of Gallic gruefests shocked the world. In the decades before, French horror movies primarily took a more subtle approach to their frissons, leaving extreme material to our imaginations. Today the Friday 13 takes a look at the rich tradition of this European country’s horror output with 13 Frightening French Flicks. (List arranged according to year of film’s release.)
1. Diabolique (1955)
You can’t keep a bad man down in this first major French horror import. “French Hitchcock” Henri-Georges Clouzot crafted this suspense classic from the novel by Vertigo co-author Pierre Boileau. Nasty headmaster (Paul Meurisse) abuses both his wife (Vera Clouzot) and girlfriend (Simone Signoret) equally, so the two conspiring women drown the creep in the bathtub. But after dumping the dead man in the swimming pool, the body disappears. As a detective pokes around, the culprits become unglued when they start glimpsing their victim furtively hanging around the school. Diabolique’s surprise-filled final act found many admirers, including Hitchcock himself. Also see Clouzot’s intense nailbiter The Wages of Fear (1953).
2. Eyes Without a Face (1959)
Face-swapping has been a staple of movies from Jess Franco’s low-budget Awful Dr. Orloff to the bloody British shocker Corruption (with a slumming Peter Cushing) to John Woo’s megabudget Face/Off. This French movie got there first and remains the best. When the face of his beautiful daughter (the ghostly Edith Scob) is shredded in a ghastly car crash, her guilt-ridden daddy doctor (Pierre Brasseur) and an assistant (Alida Valli) kidnap pretty women and graphically slice off their faces in failed transplants to restore the maimed girl’s visage. In this poetic B&W French classic, director Georges Franju presents a haunting nightmare world of twisted fatherly devotion.
3. Repulsion (1965)
Over 50 years later, Repulsion, about a woman losing her mind and committing deadly violence, continues to influence modern filmmakers. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook owe a debt to director Roman Polanski’s sophomore picture. The gorgeous Catherine Deneuve stars as a lonely woman on—and over—the verge of a nervous breakdown. The shy, depressed and sexually frigid looker is plagued by disturbing hallucinations while holed up in her flat. After she snaps, she kills any man who picked the wrong day to come calling. Polanski brilliantly holds us in suspense as his sympathetic heroine mentally unravels. The director visited similar territory in 1976’s The Tenant, with Polanski himself subbing for Deneuve.
4. Don’t Deliver Us From Evil (1971)
Initially banned in its home country due to its anti-Catholic sentiments, this controversial movie drew inspiration from the same teen murder case that Peter Jackson based his Heavenly Creatures on. Two best girlfriends, bored with the stifling ritual and hypocrisy at the convent school where they dorm, pledge allegiance to Satan and embark on a secretive campaign of escalating mischief that eventually leads to murder. First-time writer/director Joël Séria displays a sure hand with the risqué material and sustains our interest with long lingering shots that string us along to a truly unnerving conclusion.
5. The Shiver of the Vampires (1971)
In a career that spanned 42 years, prolific low-budget auteur Jean Rollin helmed over 50 movies that played both arthouses and grindhouses. His dreamy vampire movies combine sex and terror, and this favorite also mixes in droll comedy. A recently married couple decides to spend their honeymoon at the bride’s cousins’ castle. But the male relatives, former vampire hunters, have become bloodsuckers themselves. These eccentrics are attended to by two attractive servants and a lesbian vampire woman, who puts the bite on the bride. The palace and its cemetery environs make for an atmospheric setting, much more effective than the studio-bound Hammer films of the same period. Rollin infuses Shiver with his customary dreamlike imagery, such as a nude vampire slithering out of a grandfather clock and a victim felled by stiletto breasts!
6. Delicatessen (1991)
In one of the most imaginative movies from France since celluloid pioneer Georges Méliès rocketed men to the Moon, directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Alien: Resurrection) dreamt up a postapocalyptic world where food now rates as currency for the hungry masses. In this scenario, a butcher knocks off the occasional transient to nourish the cannibalistic tenants in his apartment digs. After clown performer Dominique Pinon takes a shine to the butcher’s daughter, he must avoid becoming the next banquet. A slice above the rest, Delicatessen stacks up as an endlessly inventive smorgasbord of dark comedy, queasy horror and vegetarian agitprop.
7. Maléfique (2002)
What could be a scarier place than an institutional prison? Your rights stripped away, reduced to a number, no freedom and locked up with a bunch of violence-prone strangers… Oddly, few horror films have exploited this setting, maybe because director Eric Valette’s Maléfique set the (prison) bar so high? Four guys with assorted records (from murderer to corporate fraudster) share a cramped cell, when one of the guys discovers an arcane book hidden in a wall. Said book belonged to a serial killer from the 1920s who may have used its spells to escape, so the quartet hatches a plan to follow suit. Unfortunately, like the Necronomicon, the tome unlocks unimaginable Lovecraftian nightmares. With minimal budget, Valette and his crew conjure up a claustrophobic and terrifying yarn with intriguing characters that will set you on the straight and narrow.
8. In My Skin (2002)
Triple threat writer, director and star Marina de Van concocted this Body Horror gross-out likely to have you squirming in your seat or hiding your eyes in disgust. But if you agree that horror is meant to horrify, then this transgressive movie will suit you just fine. De Van plays an alienated woman who, after a disfiguring accident, finally comes “alive” when she indulges in gruesome self-mutilation. Despite the off-putting subject matter, de Van engrosses us throughout. We guarantee In My Skin will get under yours!
9. High Tension (2003)
Frenchman Alexandre Aja turned the conventional slasher genre on its head with this stunning thriller, known in England as Switchblade Romance. Sexy college coeds Alexia and Marie (Cécile De France and Maïwenn) drive to the country residence of Alexia’s family to cram for finals. An uninvited psycho (the imposing Philippe Nahon) shows up, severs Dad’s head, cuts Mom’s throat and murders brother and finally kidnaps Alexia. Tough chick Marie goes in pursuit of the vicious killer, but all is not as it seems. In an unexpected twist, Aja drops an audacious plot reversal on us that sends High Tension spiraling in a new schizophrenic direction. Aja’s film won accolades all over the world, and the director soon fell under the auspices of US companies, where he helmed the Hills Have Eyes, Piranha and Mirrors reduxes.
10. Them (a.k.a. Ils) (2006)
This suspense thriller from David Moreau and Xavier Palud impressed Tom Cruise so much he hired the duo to direct the remake of The Eye (sigh) that he produced in 2008. With nary a drop of blood in sight, you will be on the edge of your seat during this lean, mean 77-minute exercise in pure dread. In a plot shockingly similar to 2008’s The Strangers, a young couple looking for a quiet stay in the country instead endures dangerous harassment when hooded assailants invade their home one dark evening. After this tense night to dismember, you’ll make your next holiday a staycation.
11. Inside (2007)
Ripped from the headlines (that’s not all that gets ripped here!), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s movie ranks as one of the nastiest entries in the French Grue Wave. Four months after her husband dies in a car collision, Sarah (Alison Paradis), about to give birth at any minute, receives an unwanted night caller. “La femme” (Beatrice Dalle) wants in now, and that’s not all she wants. She’s determined to steal Sarah’s unborn child, even if it means forcing a Cesarean section on the uncooperative mother-to-be. Now stateside, gorehounds Bustillo & Maury are currently revving up the Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel Leatherface.
12. Martyrs (2008)
The brutal rep of this controversial movie had everyone talking when it first came out. A French-Canadian co-production, directed by Pascal Laugier, it details the ordeal of two women who have survived terrible physical abuse in the past and present and the revenge one exacts on her cultish tormenters. The uncompromising Martyrs takes no prisoners in its torture scenes, which have prompted countless walkouts when it screened. But Martyrs has a brain, and not just the ones we see splashed against the walls in the film. The story is ultimately brilliant when you look deeper, and the last act approaches Kubrickian transcendence. Don’t be a Martyr and watch the crappy 2016 American version.
13. Neither Heaven Nor Earth (2015)
Written and directed by Clément Cogitore, this French/Belgian effort joins the rarified ranks of horror films set during the ongoing Middle East conflicts like The Objective and Monsters: Dark Continent. In this metaphysical thriller, a platoon of bored French troops stationed in Afghanistan goes from the Combat Zone to the Twilight Zone when the soldiers begin mysteriously disappearing one by one. While trying to sustain peace with the suspicious locals and fight a war with hidden terrorists, Commander Jérémie Renier must also hold onto his own tenuous sanity as the inexplicable vanishings continue. Cogitore puts the (French) accent on mood and suspense here and forces us, his patient audience, to suss out what the devil’s going on. Despite this understated approach, you will be neither disinterested nor bored by Neither Heaven Nor Earth.
Looking for more French faves? Qui, Qui! Queue up Blood and Roses (1960), Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), Trouble Every Day (2001), Sheitan (2006), Frontier(s) (2007) and The Horde (2009). From the City of Lights to the Country of Frights, rate these and your own picks on our Facebook page or Twitter using #Friday13.
The upcoming documentary Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business features an interview with Tony Timpone. Find out more about the movie here.