There was a time, not too long ago, when every French horror flick (A l'Intérieur, Frontière(s), Martyrs) was an innovative piece of genre cinema. Ever since new releases have been fighting high hopes of genre fans across the world, only a few have managed to at least approximate those expectations. Enter The Pack [La Meute], a film that bears the potential to entertain a portion of the French horror wave fans, though others will no doubt walk away from it disappointed.
New French horror films often struggle because they don't hold up to people's expectations. No doubt The Pack will have to fight that same battle, especially because it's not a particularly graphic, gore or tense film. Another big handicap for The Pack is its absurd, dark sense of humor, which will not be picked up by everyone. It's the only film I know of that ever came close to the dark comedic genius of Du Welz' Calvaire, which encountered a very similar reception amongst certain audiences. If you believe Calvaire is mere horror/thriller, I'm pretty sure The Pack will probably not be your cup of tea either.
Furthermore, the film is split in three rather distinct parts, travelling through different subgenres of the horror spectrum. The first part clearly belongs to the freaks in a cabin genre, the middle part tips its head to torture/captivity horror flicks and for the finale The Pack morphs into a creature film. Underlying these different parts though is a constant stream of dark, amusing comedy that contrasts heavily with the grim and depraved setting. No doubt it won't be to everyone's liking, but if you think you can get past these particularities, there's plenty of fun to be had with Richard's film.
The film starts simple enough, with a lone girl picking up a hitchhiker and being led to a remote diner. Things start to get a little weird when she sees a girl in bubble wrap running by, her situation doesn't exactly improve when shortly after everyone in the diner turns out to be an odd mixture of equal parts French and Hillbilly. When the hitchhiker suddenly disappears the girl starts to suspect something is amiss, but by then it is far too late for her to turn back. As I said before, the script of the film travels several different places and none of them are very original or innovative. The story is little more than a mere hook to have some mean-spirited horror fun.
As for the look of The Pack, Franck Richard hits the mark right in the middle. The remote diner, the inhabitants and the environment all look equally barren, depraved and ruined. The camera work is solid, effects are old-style but well-realized and some of the night shots near the end are simply stunning. The film can be a little too dark at times, obscuring some of the visual thrills, but these moments are quite rare and don't spoil much of the fun.
The soundtrack is what you've come to expect from a film like this. Haunting noises, low-hum ambient soundscapes, small and subtle touches of industrial left and right. It's not particularly innovating but it sure works wonders for the atmosphere. It complements the dark and grim look of the visuals and serves as a perfect contradiction with the humorous moments.
Part of what makes The Pack work so well are the actors. There aren't that many, but Richard got his hands on some of the most reputable French (horror) actors available. Philippe Nahon (Haute Tension, Calvaire, Seul Contre Tous) is a legend, but it's Yolande Moreau that steals the show. A Jeunet regular, so she must be quite used to playing weird characters, but her interpretation of La Spack here is simply epic. The way she walks, laughs and barges through the film is hilarious and absolutely unforgettable. The attentive viewer will also notice the presence of Matthias Schoenaerts, a cameo as tiny as they come, but still nice to see one of Belgium's finest actors make a small appearance.
There are no real jokes or funny oneliners. Richard's sense of humor is more absurd, best illustrated by the bubble wrap girl or a scene where Nahon is sitting at home, sticking pencils in his ears and nose while the lead girl is being tortured by the diner's patron. Add to that some nice edits and Moreau's comedic talent and what you have is a darkly disturbing yet very funny film. Richard also earns some extra credits with the inclusion of Ghost 'n Goblins footage, what a tough little game that was.
In the end, The Pack is a film that uses its horror influences to build up the comedy. It's best not to expect to find the thrills of a real horror flick here, even though there's plenty of gore, ugliness and monsters around. The constant current of underlying comedy blocks most of the tension and shock that people have come to expect from films like these, instead you get plenty of opportunities to smirk and to raise some eyebrows in delighted disgust.
I found The Pack to be a very pleasant surprise, but I encountered plenty of disappointed reactions elsewhere. If the humor doesn't get through to you, the film is just nowhere as fulfilling as a good horror film should be. But if you manage to catch a ride on Richard's dark, humorous vibe, The Pack is one of the best horror comedies produced in the last ten years. It's a difficult film to recommend, but it's still worth finding out which side you're on. With a little luck, you'll enjoy it just as much as I did.