Out of the seething mass of horror films I have both endured and absorbed over the last four years, it is the French titles that stand out most in my mind. They refuse to be ignored. They are visceral, shocking and innovative and they stay with me long after the final credits are over.
This is not to suggest that other countries don't make excellent horror films or that there are no poor French horror flicks in circulation, but that the French have hit on something that makes their offering so unlike the lazy and repetitive gore of standard horror fare. The best examples of the New French Extremity movement in horror are Haute Tension (2003, dir. Alexandre Aja), Inside (2007, dir. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo) and Martyrs (2008, dir. Pascal Laugier).
All three films come with my recommendation, but perhaps not on a night when you're feeling a bit emotionally fragile or are in need of a pleasant ending. The New French Extremity movement is associated with a diverse group of directors who represent a reworking of the horror genre, infusing transgressive content (sexual decadence, psychosis and eye-watering violence) with social and political themes. Academic Tim Palmer describes the New French Extremity movement as offering incisive social critiques, and "portraying contemporary society as isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening".
Disappointing performances and indolent stereotyping do not occur in these films. They seem to grab the viewer by the throat whilst still retaining a kind of artistry rarely seen in the horror genre. The aforementioned three films, while bloody enough to satisfy fans of exploitation horror, don't excite a level of bland disgust in the way that something like The Human Centipede: Full Sequence (2011, dir. Tom Six) does. I wanted to scrub my eyes with bleach after seeing Mr Six's latest film, as it provided little in the way or plot or script, lacked both tension and basic innovation, and was not even partially redeemed by the censor-driven move to monochrome.
In contrast, the originality of Martyrs forces the viewer to consider the purpose of pain and the transcendence of it, from within a cocoon of emotional rawness and liberal sprayings of blood. The film defies genre pigeon-holing as the storyline continually jackknifes back upon itself, leaving the audience vulnerable and disorientated, much like Lucie and Anna in the ugly world of manufactured martyrdom. Inside provides the most genuinely frightening and unrelenting take on the home-invasion subgenre I've seen to date and exploits a very human terror of childbirth and the changes that occur to the body during pregnancy, most famously exposed in Rosemary's Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski). Every shot is beautifully constructed, great attention is paid to detail, seen in the patterns of blood spatter that characterize the bathroom scenes and directorial focus on the female body and point of view at no point descends into tits and arse voyeurism or dull helplessness.
These French productions are also particularly valuable because they are not afraid to address the socio-political origins of our fears, to raise fundamental questions and to prompt real 'body responses' during viewing. Threatened pregnancy, psychological displacement and the torture of young women are not new concepts within horror, but they are presented in such a way that emotional distance or disinterest is hardly possible. Horror films should not exclude creativity and beauty as characteristics in their pursuit of the cold sweat of an audience. Martyrs, Haute Tension and Inside embrace these qualities and it very much pays off.
The British and American horror markets could be refreshed by a move away from lazy characterization and unfocussed plot and scripting, because providing an audience with 90 minutes of banal blonde in bloodbath (usually with a lot of screaming and a masked killer) insults the intelligence. Directors Laugier, Aja, Maury and Bustillo appear to have hit upon a winning formula, keeping it graphic, bloody, tense, well-constructed and pretty damn clever.