For this last instalment of the EXTREME HORROR series in 2019, I decided to cover some of my all-time favourite extreme horror movies, which belong to what’s become known as The New French Extremity. This is a cinematic and artistic movement that refers to a collection of transgressive films by French directors at the turn of the 21st century.
Although The New French Extremity might be considered simply as a bunch of extreme horror movies from France, there is a lot more to it. In short, what separates these films from the usual affair of extremism in cinema is the fact that “a soul also lurks underneath the shocks” (David Fear, 2008), meaning that poignant religious, social and philosophical themes are present in these movies amidst violence, gore and sexual assault. The New French Extremity finds its roots in 1970s exploitation cinema and early 80s body horror, but it transformed these inspirations into a crossover between sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling psychosis. It’s a diverse horror sub-genre that breaks taboo and shows viewers something they don’t want to be witnessing, all the while affecting their brains with controversial themes, messages and ideas.
The New French Extremity is, actually, one of the reasons why I love horror cinema. It features some of my all-time favourite horror movies and it encompasses a few of my favourite filmmakers, such as Gaspar Noe’ and Pascal Laugier. Inspired by some other masters of filmmaking (like Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrej Zulawski, Michael Haneke and Pier Paolo Pasolini), The New French Extremity officially includes 28 movies. Since I talked about Gaspar Noe’ before on this website, his movies won’t be included in this article. Instead, this post will feature the five most infamous titles of The New French Extremity, the ones that are usually referred to as some of the most disturbing movies ever made. Without wasting any more time, let’s check them out!
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Haute Tension / High Tension / Switchblade Romance (2003) – The debut film by Alexandre Aja (Mirrors, Crawl) is a shocker about Marie and Alexia, two best friends who decide to spend a quiet weekend at Alexia’s parents’ secluded farmhouse. On the night of their arrival, tough, the girls’ idyllic getaway turns into an endless night of horror as a maniac truck driver starts murdering the people around them.
I often rant about the ending of High Tension on this website because, to me, it features a twist that only make the movie worse. Heck, the big reveal created a plot hole so big that even Roger Ebert had to discuss it! However, I still think the film is a whole is a great watch for fans of gore and extreme cinema. Subtly assessing themes of repressed sexuality and gender confusion, High Tension succeeds in being one of the bloodiest and goriest survival horror/slasher crossovers ever made. Great makeup and practical effects, combined with the creativity behind the camera, make this a truly gut-wrenching watch.
The film is extremely fast paced and doesn’t allow the viewer to relax for a mere second. However, there’s enough room for character development, which is delivered during the action and through the reaction of each character. This is, no doubt, Alexandre Aja’s magnum opus. As long as you don’t mind getting a bit pissed off at the ending, High Tension is mandatory horror viewing for fans of extreme cinema.
Ils / Them (2005) – Not as popular as the previous title (or even the next ones), Them is one of the most extreme examples of home-invasion horror movies. The movie revolves around Clémentine, a teacher in a French School in Bucharest, and her husband Lucas: they live in a remote cabin in Romania where, one night, Clémentine is woken by weird noises outside their house, and Lucas sees their car being stolen. The lights are turned off, the phones are disconnected and they see that they are no longer alone.
Whenever I watch Them, I think this is what The Strangers should’ve been. There’s no faffing around in this movie: from beginning to end, this film features high levels of tension, loads of violence, nasty torture and unapologetic gore. What makes Them very effective is the combination of two aspects: the young age of the assailants and the relatability of the main characters. Clémentine and Lucas feel like real people you truly feel for, whereas the assailants act in a rather raw and believable way, which makes them feel realistic and, thus, scarier than your average cartoonish home invaders.
To me, Them is less extreme and unflinching than the other movies featured on this list, but it’s still a very hard to watch home-invasion thriller. If you’re a fan of this kind of films, do yourself a favour and check it out!
Frontier(s) (2007) – If you like your extreme horror movies to be action-packed and entertaining, it won’t get any better than Frontier(s) for you! The movie follows a gang of young thieves fleeing Paris during the violent aftermath of a political election, only to get stuck at an Inn run by neo-Nazis. Frontier(s) is absolutely insane, it’s like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on steroids and methamphetamines.
Without a single dull or slow moment, Xavier Gens has crafted a film that’s constantly over-the-top, brutally violent, exploitative and insanely gory. Again, the reliance on fantastic practical effects and the twisted mind of the director gave us a movie that’s impossible to forget. Unlike the previous titles, Frontier(s) also benefits from astounding camera-work and editing, which only make every scene more intense and fast-paced.
Yet, many fans of this wonderful story of violence might not realise how poignant and ahead of its time Frontier(s) was. In a subtle but still obvious way, this movie criticises French politics (the same politics that made Marine Le Pen successful today!) and warns about the dangers of certain ideologies. It, also, invites the viewer to think about the contrast between generations and how it can escalate due to poor communication and ignorance. Frontier(s) is a nearly flawless movie that I absolutely adore: it’s my second favourite horror film of 2007 and I encourage you to give it a chance.
À l’intérieur / Inside (2007) – Oddly enough, every time I watch this film I love it even more. Upon 5th viewing – for the purpose of this article – I came to the conclusion that Inside is one of my favourite horror films of the 2000s. As I wrote last time I reviewed it, this movie about a pregnant woman being tormented by an intruder armed with scissors manages to be extremely effective, disturbing and very off-putting.
The combination of ridiculous amounts of gore and genuine tension/anxiety is something not many movies have been able to achieve. À l’intérieur is one of the most violent, brutal and gut-wrenching horror films you will ever see and, if you’re pregnant, I would strongly advise against watching it! Aside from the constant violence and gore, this film features a couple of memorable scenes that’s truly impossible to un-see, such as the finale, which is shocking, depressing and truly disturbing. I love it!
Other than the aforementioned elements, what makes this French shocker even more memorable and rewatchable are the claustrophobic cinematography and the eerie, spotless sound design. I don’t think À l’intérieur would be nearly as effective if the presentation was less thought-out and purposeful. Aside from some questionable choices from secondary characters, À l’intérieur / Inside is a perfect horror movie and one of the very best examples of extreme cinema.
Martyrs (2008) – To be completely honest, I never wanted to review Martyrs in my entire life. Why? Because I think a book wouldn’t be enough to describe how multi-layered, detailed and perfect this masterpiece is. It’s fair to say that, to me, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is one of the best horror films ever made. And it is, undoubtedly, my favourite horror film of the last 20 years.
Since I can’t really do justice to such a masterpiece in a short review, I just want to briefly say why I personally adore Martyrs. Upon watching it 23 times, reading about it and studying every frame through making-of documentaries and director’s commentaries, I think what makes it special is the fact that it would still be a perfect movie without violence and gore. At its core, Martyrs is about the meaning of life and the brutal, but ultimately unsuccessful, search for answers. In other words, violence and abuse make this movie disturbing, but its underlaying message and relentless journey turn it into one of the most depressing cinematic experiences ever attempted.
On top of that, Martyrs encapsulates every trait a good horror movie should have: it’s got a shocking opening scene, multiple plot twists that only improve the story, a thought-provoking ending, unique storytelling, conventional and unconventional scare tactics simultaneously, skin-crawling images and eerie sounds, dreadful atmosphere, realistic violence, brutality… Besides, there’s a lot more to say about the spotless editing, the mind-blowingly perfect camera work, the realistic performances, the marvellous lighting, the original set-design, the relevance held by each single frame, the use of music and sound-editing, the top-notch practical FX and unnoticeable visual effects, the impossibility to find continuity errors even if you watch the film a dozen times.
If you want the ultimate experience in depressing and disturbing cinema, all the while being engrossed in a story of violence and torture, you have to watch Martyrs. If this is not what you’re looking for, you should watch Martyrs anyway. It’s a 99-minute-long manual on how to make a horror film, at the very least.
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