Book Review: Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

Scholars and journalists Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati, hosts of the Faculty of Horror podcast, focus on in-depth analysis of the horror genre with a feminist approach that would sway the staunchest naysayer.  With their knowledge and background, it’s no surprise that West has recently written a book entitled Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and after getting to meet the author herself, I had to buy a copy. Once I flipped past the first page I was hooked.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity came from a lecture West presented in 2014 for The Black Museum, a series put on by Subissati and Toronto-based writer and editor Paul Corupe where seasoned speakers and professionals in the horror genre present on various topics “from film theory to genre studies”.  It was here that her academic but extremely accessible book was born, and West successfully tracks the transition “from art-house films to full-fledged horror films” that came out of France from the early 90’s to the mid 2000’s.

The genre of New French Extremity is something that for a long time only a few could stomach or relate to. It is brutal, bloody and in your face, but West eases the reader in by giving you a solid base of French history and politics, along with the violence it spawned, in order to help you understand the environment these directors were coming from and the genesis of their films. In essence, French society tended to put a shiny veneer over the ills and wrongs of their actions, turning a blind eye to it all. These films attempt to peel back the shiny exterior of a country celebrated for its culture to show the societal warts that got bigger over centuries. While some of the filmmakers may have different approaches to their subject matter, be it murderous country folk, abused women, self-destructive characters or relentless serial killers, West brings them together to map their contributions to pushing societal, sexual and political boundaries, showing how their films soon became cinematic earmarks as well as social commentaries in the history of horror cinema and what is now considered a critical part of the genre.

Most horror critics and writers like myself have seen many of the films West writes about. I saw them because they were a) French and b) horror or taboo; things I love unconditionally, with Martyrs and High Tension sitting in prime positions on my shelves. They were terrifying films yet I was drawn to them. I couldn’t make connections other than they were all French and showed a darker side to the country I romanticized so much; dots on the same page without the lines to connect them. West is able to create threads of similarities with such coherence and logic, that any French extreme enthusiast feels a sense of almost relief as her analysis pinpoints characters, motivations and plotlines to make sense of the chaos you witness on-screen. All the chapters are riveting, but for those of you who search for some meaning from Martyrs as much as I have, West’s dissection and interpretation of the film comes very near to perfection.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity will resonate with those who love French Extreme cinema and those who have visited (and fallen in love with) France like myself; becoming lured by the romantic façade of an aloof yet beautiful country, only to scratch the surface revealing the grimy reality underneath.  Steeped in the history and culture of France, West’s book makes these admittedly horrifying films accessible and convey an understanding much like one would study a terrifying beast for meaning. It is truly a must read for any and all horror fans and academics out there looking for a comprehensive guide to the beginnings of French Extreme cinema.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]

Bird Box: Translating the Unseen to the Big Screen

The day I’ve dreaded for a long time is finally here. Bird Box, the 2014 post-apocalyptic horror debut novel by Josh Malerman, has been made into a film, and as a diehard fan of the novel, I’m here to give you my verdict after watching the highly anticipated Netflix holiday 2018 release.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is pregnant and not looking forward to being a mother. Amidst her life-changing situation, reports of people killing themselves after they see some sort of creature are flooding the airwaves, and soon her hometown. Malorie loses her sister to this threat, and finds refuge in a household of strangers. As the new house mates (who include John Malkovich as Douglas, Danielle Macdonald as fellow expectant mother Olympia, and Lil Rey Howery as Charlie) realize they cannot walk through the world sighted lest they go insane from these creatures, they struggle with this new normal of darkness and blindfolds. Over a span of five years, Malorie must find her maternal instinct, some hope and stay sane to navigate her blind escape to unaffected survivors on a treacherous river journey.

birdboxriver
Malorie rowing blind to safety.

Let’s get this out of the way: Bird Box was a book written in 2014 (see Rue Morgue Magazine’s book editor Monica S. Kuebler’s interview with Malerman in issue #146), long before A Quiet Place, and I’m pretty sure there’s a short film based on similar monsters screened at Toronto After Dark well before the mainstream horror hit too, but I digress. When I first read Malerman’s novel, I couldn’t put it down. I enjoy post-apocalyptic horror, and this hit close to home because Malerman plays with our fears of senseless violence as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Logically, we know we can die at any moment, but he uses fear’s viral nature and the terrifying notion of our sense of sight as the cause for our demise. Malerman also gets my devotion because he wrote a female protagonist with care and sensitivity male authors often miss.

It was difficult to envision a film made from such a compelling book about invisible predators from the viewpoint of blinded prey. Luckily Danish director Susanne Bier, who has a long list of awards and nominations for In A Better World, Brothers and The Night Manager, does an admiral job translating the feel of the narrative, and I love that her illustrious career now includes a horror film. Award-winning screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the pen behind Lights Out, Arrival, and his own film Hours, shows his strength at adapting books by staying close to the jumping timelines of Malorie before being a mother and after, most likely because he had reportedly been working on a script with Malerman as the book was being written. Along with Bier, they sustain the creeping dread I felt while reading the book. Issues arise however, when Heisserer streamlined and changed some of the plot and character development to tell the story visually. The narrative is specifically non-visual and internal and his script watered down some of the more chilling moments in the novel, like the double birthing scene which is tonally quite different from the book due to the lack of creature involvement.  The ending was also far too safe and feel-good.  If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean.  I will applaud the filmmaker though for not giving us the creatures dead on since it would have, as Bier puts it in one interview, been the wrong decision, making the creatures laughable instead of frightening.  Instead, they gave us some rough sketches drawn by the sniveling rescue Gary (Tom Hollander), a conniving madman intent on showing everyone his crazed vision.

Even though the characters veer away from those in the book, the ensemble cast is surprisingly good: Malkovich was entertaining as the self-serving curmudgeon Douglas, and while Bullock played Malorie with a sufficient vigor, I found her portrayal of the character’s coping mechanisms wooden instead of stoic. I wanted to see more of B.D. Wong who played Douglas’ neighbour Greg, but AHS’s Sarah Paulson as the warmer, more feminine foil to sister Malorie, as well as Trevante Rhodes (of Moonlight fame) as her sensitive love interest Tom rounded out the key and diverse cast. Tom, who was originally white in the book, is easily played by Rhodes proving the interchangeability of race and casting. It’s refreshing to see a black man play a sensitive, protective role written for a white character.

My one issue with the diverse casting is Charlie. He is a grocery store clerk who has valid theories about the creatures. Lucy (Rosa Salazar), one of the housemates, asks him in a condescending tone if he learned his theories working at the supermarket or perhaps even (gasp!) college. She is skeptical of his knowledge which is vast because he is clearly well-read, however it’s difficult for her to believe because he’s just a black grocery store clerk. The entire household dismisses his theories in one fell swoop when he reveals he’s writing a book, even though his research is probably closer to the truth than anything else. He also ends up sacrificing himself unnecessarily later to redeem his cowardly nature. This harkens back to an age-old assumption that blacks are less intelligent, cowardly and disposable, and clearly misses the mark in an otherwise well-cast film.

charlie bird box
Charlie (Howery) freaks out as the group heads out to get supplies.

Overall, Bird Box is a mostly decent representation of a book that proves difficult to film, even if it’s getting mixed reviews.  While we squabble over whether we liked the film or the book better, this narrative is important now that there is a political meltdown worldwide. It’s as if the creatures are a manifestation of our greed, hate and turmoil, threatening us with self-destruction as the world’s issues come to a head, so here’s hoping we can eventually remove the blindfolds and look the monster dead in the eyes.