Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #107
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: May 15, 2010 (Cannes), March 6, 2012 (USA)
Sub-Genre: Survival Horror
Country of Origin: France/Belgium
Running Time: 86 minutes
Director: Franck Richard
Producers: Verane Frediani, Franck Ribiere
Screenplay: Franck Richard
Special Effects: Clément Wintz
Visual Effects: Guillaume Pondard, Régis Coque
Cinematography: Laurent Barès
Score: Chris Spencer, Ari Benjamin Meyers
Editing: Olivier Gajan
Studio: La Fabrique 2, BE-FILMS Motion Investment Group
Distributor: La Fabrique de Films
Stars: Yolande Moreau, Émilie Dequenne, Benjamin Biolay, Philippe Nahon, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ian Fonteyn, Georges Lini, Philippe Résimont, Brice Fournier, Nicolas Leroy, Mathieu Bouteligier, François Doms, Benoît Vivien, Eric Godon, Joris Strickx
Suggested Audio Candy:
Charles Trenet La Mere
I have never been able to understand the obsession with hating on the French. It has become a running feud since the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century and the tendency is to blame the entire nation on account of this one rotten apple. I’ve never carried bitterness around as such cumbersome baggage serves no real purpose other than to fuck with your karma and I happen to love the country. Besides, Alexandre Aja is French – do you see me boycotting his movies? Of course not, I would be spiting my face and have become accustomed to my nose exactly where it stands thank you very much.
Over the past few years, notably since Aja’s Haute Tension crossed over so effortlessly, French horror cinema has provided the shot in the arm horror so desperately needed. Some of the finest examples of the genre have originated en Francois and they’re well enough signposted for me not to be required to reel them off. La Meute may not possess quite the level of show-stopping swagger of premier works such as the aforementioned or fellow gemstones Martyrs and Inside and, indeed, it’s as much a Belgian effort as French, but it does remind us that the Europeans have something to say about the rejuvenation of our beloved horror.
Franck Richard’s film is virtually unheard of and may well have passed me by had it not been for its glorious cover art. I’ve always been a sucker for having my retinas teased and it recalls the optical delights of the eighties with its tantalizing image. Granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to suck Richard’s dick quite yet as Jack Bravman’s 1986 film Zombie Nightmare did exactly the same and turned out to be a dud of gargantuan proportions. However, I’m pleased as punch to report that the same cannot be said here.
La Meute, or The Pack to use its travel title, is something of a one-off, possessing its own exclusive tone and own heart (a deliciously blackened one at that). There are no expansive vistas here and the short draw distance of the murky surrounding moors put paid to that. Indeed, most of the events take place in and around a solitary location and a mere handful of protagonists.
One of these is lone traveller Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne) who picks up a hitchhiker named Max (Benicio del Toro’s French doppelgänger Benjamin Biolay) and the pair make a short pit-stop at a roadside tavern for the obligatory small talk. In no time they has attracted the unwanted attention of a particularly unsavory band of bikers and it appears as though trouble is brewing. That is until the establishment’s portly proprietor La Speck (Yolande Moreau) steps in and saves the day.
Picture Roseanne Barr at the height of menopause and you should be in the right ball park. While she looks more likely to eat these irritants than scare them off, the 12-gage shotgun behind her bar suggests that this is not the woman to be trifling with. While a ruffled Charlotte is grateful for the intervention, she may want to put any thank yous on ice for the time being as there’s way more to La Speck than meets the eye.
The frying pan is traditionally only ever a hop, skip and jump from the fire and, when Max fails to return from a visit to the restroom, Charlotte is particularly concerned. Despite the fact that he is clearly not the best conversationist, she is genuinely bothered by his disappearance and returns to the tavern after nightfall to snoop around further. Alas, this doesn’t prove to be the shrewdest move as, one blow to the head later, she wakes up bound and caged in the room at the building’s rear.
To make matters worse, Max has returned from what is potentially the longest piss in history, and his intentions are not quite as honorable as she had initially hoped. Moreover, he refers to head warden La Speck as “mother” and it fast becomes clear to our beleaguered lead that the two are in cahoots.
The bad news keeps on coming as it turns out that, while the tavern provides sole income, this entrepreneurial pair are also keen farmers during their downtime. We’re not talking a brood of battery hens and a Friesian cow either; their livestock are far more than simply meal tickets. With escape looking increasingly unlikely and sundown looming, the full extent of Charlotte’s plight becomes painfully clear.
You see, beneath the top soil out back, an ominous band of carnivorous creatures are preparing for supper and she just happens to be the chosen menu option. Her only hope for survival appears to be overweight ex-cop Chinaski (Philippe Nahon) and he is some way from your traditional knight in shining armor. To give you an idea of how fucked she is, here is an indicator of how Chinaki likes to spend his retirement.
Richard, who writes as well as directs, tells a simple tale, the type easily shoe-horned into an anthology and ordinarily one that would struggle to flesh out a full-length feature. That said, there is no padding here and not an ounce of fat on these bones, just 8 minutes of concentrated terror that leaves a beautifully pungent aftertaste. It doesn’t concern itself with excessive dialogue and, instead, Richard allows the tone to speak on his behalf.
Laurent Barès’s cinematography adds oodles of atmosphere, using low-hanging mist and the damp chill in the air to unsettle us further. Most critically, Richard doesn’t bolt the gate and, while la meute in question are clearly illustrated and very much expected, we are always unsure of where it is headed next and this assists in peaking our curiosity.
As for the creatures of the piece, they are real slow-moving nightmares and I would imagine that scarecrow sales would plummet if these lumbering nasties were ever patented. Bald as poster boys for alopecia treatment and lacking anything resembling eyes, the bottom halves of their faces more than make up for any inactivity topside.
With jutting jaws that can tear through flesh and bone in a second, they also possess range-finding nostrils that would leave the Graboids from Tremors green with envy and can smell fresh meat from a good country mile away. More than grateful for any scraps left out once the full moon takes its place front and center, they gleefully take their fill, before shuffling back to the earth for that much-needed post-meal nap until the next time daylight diminishes.
Dequenne is excellent as our harried heroine and, Biolay, brooding enough to leave us unsure as to where his allegiances lie. However, it is Moreau who steals the show as the ringleader of this savage circus and, while she appears easy enough to overcome, her chain mail vest and legendary wrestling skills make for a fearful opponent. For that additional layer of consternation, she is utterly nonchalant as he goes about her vile business and it is no small wonder that the fruit of her loins are spoiled and severely lacking in social skills. Of course, she is happy to take a back seat once la meute come into play but, as fiendish as they may be, she never once takes back stage and her threat feels constant throughout.
The Pack never quite achieves classic status as its aspirations are slight and there is little on offer here that we wouldn’t have seen before. That said, it is the manner in which Richard’s fable unfurls that makes for such a fascinating 86 minutes and it is never in danger of outstaying its welcome. Sadly this has enjoyed nothing like the exposure of other more saleable French exports and seems destined to be forgotten in the grand scheme of things. It’s a shame as, after far too long floundering in the doldrums, horror needs movies like this to continue its recent resurgence and I just pray that I have done enough to peak your curiosity as it does more than enough to warrant a little plot in our hearts.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: While the body count is admittedly slender, there is a fair share of human surplus on exhibit and Clément Wintz is magnanimous with the splatter once Richard’s tale reveals its less than honorable intentions. Limbs are unapologetically ripped from their sockets and stomachs punched through, while the creature FX is downright exemplary. Are you still sitting there pondering your purchase Grueheads? I implore you to get your hands on La Speck’s signature dish, like yesterday.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)