A couple of years ago films like Haute Tension, À l'Intérieur and Martyrs took the horror world by storm. French horror was all the rage, but its fame was rather short-lived. The second batch of films didn't live up to people's lofty expectations and that was pretty much that. But from its ashes new directors are slowly starting to rise. Romain Basset is one of those directors, leaving behind quite the calling card with his first ever feature film, Horsehead.
Some films demand that you allow them some time to sink in, others don't take more than a single scene to convert you into a fan. It turned out that Horsehead was a clear match for the latter category. That first scene, while not very complex or even all that original, revealed enough of Basset's stylistic prowess to convince me I was about to watch a great little horror film. And sure enough, Horsehead ended up being one of the better horror films I've seen in years.
While Horsehead is a horror film pur sang, it's not a simple genre film that hurls itself from one horror cliché to the next. Basset takes full control over his film, mixing in different influences and steering it into unexpected directions. There are some visual nods to Argento coupled with Livide-like fantastical elements. And with the horsehead parading across the screen, Miike's Gozu is never far off. But ultimately this film reminded me a lot of Zoetrope, an excellent yet terribly overlooked short film/music video directed by Charlie Deaux and scored by Lustmord.
The plot of Horsehead revolves around Sarah, a psychophysiology student who suffers from feverish visions and dreams. When she returns home to visit her parents the dreams start to intensify and Sarah is convinced her deceased grandmother is trying to contact her though her dreams. Sarah's mom appears to know more about the origin of these visions, but she keeps her lips tightly sealed. And the closer Sarah comes to revealing the secrets that lie in her past, the sicker she becomes.
It's fair to say that Basset's first feature takes a few visual cues from Dario Argento's earlier films. Beautiful use of color (lots of strong reds and blues), expressive camera angles, a maiden in a nightgown and a gothic-like setting make for a very atmospheric whole. Even so, it's not the defining feature of Horsehead's visual style. The editing makes a bigger (and even better) impression, with quick and sharp cuts forming the basis for a very rhythmic visual experience.
It's not just the editing that adds rhythm to the film either. The soundtrack is a superb collection of electronic tracks, ranging from soundscapes and eerie illbient to more beat-driven pieces. I've always wondered why not more directors dare to make use of the abstract qualities of electronic music and a film like Horsehead only strengthens my beliefs that the potential is definitely there. The soundtrack adds an intensity and rhythm that propels the film forward, in combination with the lush visuals it makes for a magnificent audiovisual package.
The quality of the actors is less homogeneous. The leads are strong, with Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux making a good impression as Sarah and Catriona MacColl really making the most of her part as Sarah's stern yet loving mother. The supporting actors on the other hand are quite weak. I'm not sure if it's the result of a French director making an English-language film, but some characters (like the old caretaker) are so stilted and over the top that at first I thought something went wrong with the dub. Philippe Nahon's cameo is a nice little extra, but he too sounds a little awkward delivering his lines in English.
While Horsehead goes on to reveal some of its mysteries, there's plenty of room left for a second viewing to fill in the gaps. There's not really a clear lore or a tightly knit ending that ties everything together, instead the viewer gets flashes of information and is left to complete the puzzle himself. Or maybe I just missed some things because I was so entranced by the film's amazing atmosphere. Ultimately, that's what got to me the most. The horror and mystery don't really originate from what is told, but from the way it is presented. It's probably a bit too abstract for most horror fans, but that's what sets this film apart from the rest.
Basset shows tremendous potential and doesn't waste any time cashing in on it. Horsehead is an audiovisual marvel, featuring an amazing soundtrack and stellar cinematography. The supporting cast may not always be up to par and those looking for a clear cut plot may be a little disappointed, but if don't mind that, Horsehead is one of the must-see horror films of the past few years. I can't wait to see what Basset will come up with for his next film.