Frontier(S) (2007)

FrontiersThe New French Extremity is the term used to describe a particular subset of films within the Extreme Cinema category, that were made by French directors around the start of the new millennium. Artforum critic James Quandt coined the phrase but, just as with the invention of David Edelstein’s term, Torture Porn, it was used in the pejorative sense. Regardless, both terms have been subsequently embraced by fans of boundary-pushing cinema, and it wasn’t long before the labels were worn like a badge of honor. Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) is one of the most recognizable films of the French Extremity movement and certainly earns its stripes with graphic, visceral violence. But that aside, the real question becomes “how does it actually hold up as a film?” Well, let’s discuss.

The main story is set against the backdrop of a controversial election in France where rioting has broken out after right-wing extremist politicians have seized power. Alex (Aurélien Wiik) and his gang of young thugs need to get out of the city with their bag of ill-gotten money as soon as possible, so they divide into two groups to meet in an inn outside of town. Unfortunately for them, this particular inn is run by a sadistic family of neo-Nazis that is determined to make their lives a living hell.

It makes sense that films, especially horror, typically build in intensity as they move towards the climax but one of the most notable aspects of Frontier(s) is how it takes that concept to the extreme. While many horror films will start with a horrific scene establishing the tone you can expect throughout the movie, this does not and for a significant amount of viewing time it plays out as more of a crime thriller without any horror elements.

But rest assured, the horror does come, and by the time we reach the climax, we’ve been treated to numerous scenes of gruesome violence that (in true French Extremity fashion) lead to characters being literally blood-soaked . Ultimately, this approach serves the film well as viewers unfamiliar with what they are getting into will no doubt be taken by surprise and it makes the violence that does happen, all the more shocking. It also serves the narrative well to have the film become more visceral and gruesome as the situation worsens for the characters.

The film itself exists in a world of slightly heightened reality and, at times, the characters (particularly the villains) come off as just short of cartoonish. Regardless, the acting is actually very well done and Karina Testa especially shines as Yasmine, the sole female member of the gang. In this role she is exceptionally effective at physically conveying the mental toll that an ordeal like this would take on a person.

Social commentary plays a big part in the story and Gens has revealed in interviews that the 2002 French presidential election, which had an extreme right party in the second round, was a direct inspiration for this film. Certainly the subtext can be read as a manifestation of the fear and anxiety caused by the thought of right-wing extremists in control of the country, but the execution of the concept manages to be both superfluous and slightly heavy-handed. Even though the idea feels incredibly prescient to those of us in the US right now, it still neglects to really get at the meat of the issue or bring something new to the conversation.

In the end, Frontier(s) succeeds in being a fun, bloody, survival horror film that draws more than a little inspiration from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. With a runtime of nearly two hours it does take some time to get where you’re going but is worth the trip when you arrive.


American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock (2015)

AGP2 V2After successfully capturing the gruesome and dangerous feel of the original series with the first American Guinea Pig film, Bouquet of Guts and Gore, the primary challenge for the sequel becomes figuring out how to follow it up without being repetitive. It’s not surprising then, that Bloodshock would take the franchise in a pretty different direction from the first as it focuses on a male protagonist and is primarily shot in black and white. This is certainly a gamble, so the real question becomes, “does it pay off?” Well, let’s discuss.

The film stars Dan Ellis as a man being held in a small white room in an unknown location, who is occasionally brought out only to be tortured by a psychotic doctor (Andy Winton) and his orderlies. His miserable routine of boredom and agony is suddenly broken up by the notes that start being slipped to him through the walls from a woman in the next room (Lillian McKinny) who appears to be doomed to the same fate.

This time around, Stephen Biro stays on as writer, but taps Marcus Koch to direct. Koch, for his part, does an amazing job creating an atmosphere of bleak despair and utilizes the black and white style to create very well-crafted shots of the gruesome torture on display. Speaking of torture, the special effects in this film are also incredibly realistic, detailed and gruesome as one would expect in any good Guinea Pig film.

As far as acting goes, both Ellis and McKinny bring it, delivering performances that are vulnerable, sincere, and compelling. Winton also makes for an imposing figure with his commanding stage presence that conveys a genuine sense of malevolence. Now, I hate to call one person out, but in an overall great cast, the one part that wasn’t selling it for me was the head orderly, whose performance was just a bit too unnatural and made him stick out as an actor surrounded by characters.

Even more than the black and white style or the male protagonist, what really sets this apart from other Guinea Pig films is actually the runtime. At 98 minutes, it’s the only one of either series (so far) to actually be of a standard feature length. This is notable because it is also where the film runs into it’s biggest issues. It’s not hard to maintain an audience’s interest in the virtually plot-less torture of the original Japanese films for their 45 or so minute runtimes, but when a film of this type is stretched to an hour and a half, that starts to become problematic.

That’s not to say, of course, that this film is plot-less, it does have a definite story that picks up speed and pays off towards the end, but it is also not a film with the kind of dramatic arc that is typically found within a feature. I’m all for breaking the conventions of cinema, but you have to replace them with something that works just as well and, in this case, it unfortunately amounts to large stretches in the middle that feel repetitive and dare I say, boring. Now, I’m not saying the overall film is boring, simply that it would have been a much stronger, tighter picture if 15-20 minutes had been cut from the middle.

As Bloodshock ramps up towards the climax, it does reinvigorate itself and delivers the defining scene of the film that makes the journey really pay off. I won’t spoil it with specifics, but I will say that it utilizes the concept of a transition from black and white to color better than I have ever seen previously in film. Some minor continuity issues aside, this is an amazing and visceral scene that must be seen to be believed.

Some key backstory about the characters is actually revealed during the credits which does place the events of the film in an interesting light and adds a new dimension to the film itself. Despite this, it still falls just short of really tying the story into a cohesive package, something that a brief scene bridging the gap from the backstory to the main story would have neatly solved, especially concerning the involvement of the doctor.

All in all, an extremely bleak and interesting anti-Hollywood journey that is worth strapping yourself in for, even if the trip sometimes feels a bit too long.


American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore (2014)

AGP 1The Guinea Pig film series is celebrated by fans of Extreme Cinema for it’s uncompromising gore and sadistic violence that reaches levels so rarely able to be seen in film. Even though these films remain near and dear to the black hearts of us gore hounds, the fact is, that it’s been decades since the last film was released and at this point, the out-of-print DVDs are hard to even find. Although prior to the limited DVD release in 2002 by German company Devil Pictures, North American fans of the series only knew the films as grainy bootlegs from multi-generation VHS tapes.

Despite the 2002 release, though, the series still seemed destined to eventually be forgotten, but in 2005 Stephen Biro rescued it from obscurity by giving it a proper North American DVD release through his company Unearthed Films. However, not content with simply preserving the original series, Biro also took it upon himself to resurrect the concept for contemporary audiences and, in 2014, kicked off his American Guinea Pig film series with the first entry Bouquet of Guts and Gore. Does this update properly capture the look and feel of the original Japanese films and set itself as a worthy standard bearer for the series in the new millennium? Well, let’s discuss.

Like much of the original series, this film is light on what most would deem a “conventional” plot and can essentially be summarized as “three men capture a pair of women and torture them to death to make a snuff film.” Of course, as fans of the original series know, the real appeal of a Guinea Pig film isn’t its storyline.

Content wise, this film is most similar to the second Guinea Pig entry, Flower of Flesh and Blood, as it also features the graphic disassembling of a female victim (or rather victims in this case) who remains unnervingly unresponsive due to the drugs she is given. Naturally, if you are going to brand yourself a Guinea Pig film you need to be able to showcase brutal and grotesque gore effects that are realistic enough to convince Charlie Sheen it’s a genuine snuff film. On that most important front, AGP: BoGaG delivers, with stunning practical effects that show every graphic detail of what it looks like to take apart a human body. From limbs being laboriously sawed through, to eyeballs being slit, jaws hacked off and guts pulled out, every aspect is presented in incredibly detailed realism that is essential to any true Guinea Pig film.

Biro also makes the interesting stylistic choice to show the characters themselves filming the events, which adds to the found footage/snuff film feel he is going for. The footage is also shot mostly handheld from different types of cameras and it is made clear that they are recording on both VHS and film. This makes for a sometimes jarring change in image quality from one shot to the next, although, this appears to be Biro’s way of paying homage to the grainy, bootleg style of the originals, while also ensuring that audiences are able to view the brutal effects in all their gruesome glory.

Now, I like the idea that the characters are creating this snuff film (that also serves as a Satanic sacrifice) at the behest of unseen clients, but this does make the movie a bit problematic from a story perspective. Are we to assume that what we are watching is the final edited product that will be sent to the clients? This makes the scene with the snuff film editor feel a bit out of place, as it would be the only part of this movie that takes place in the “real world” of the film and not within the snuff film itself. This would also be true for the end scene, although it is not entirely clear whether that is meant to be the opening footage for the next project they are making. No spoilers here, but I actually found that to be the most disturbing part of this entire movie, simply for what is implied.

This also brings up the questions “why would the clients want the movie to be made on multiple formats that ultimately result in inconsistent footage quality?” And “is this film meant to take place before the invention of digital cameras?” Now, while I’m on the subject, I do feel I have to mention that the only other area where I saw some room for improvement, was in the performance of the director character (Scott Gabbey) who struck me as a bit stilted. There is not a lot of dialogue in this film and, since he is responsible for much of it, a more naturalistic delivery of his lines would have improved the audiences immersion in the film.

To be clear, these are ultimately minor, quibbling points that don’t detract much from the overall experience of the film, but as a reviewer, it is my duty to address any parts of the film that aren’t hitting it at 100%. Rest assured, this is very much a worthy continuation of the Guinea Pig legacy. Unlike most American takes on foreign films, this one is very successful at capturing the authentic tone and feeling of the originals, which is a rare feat indeed. It is also able to create the same kind of extremely dark, gritty, and dangerous feeling of the original series and may actually surpass it in the level of extreme violence on display. This is absolutely the way a Guinea Pig film should be made, but also stands on it’s own as an all too rare example of truly uncompromising, uncensored filmmaking. Take note horror fans, this is what genuine Extreme Cinema looks like. It is also definitely one of the most violent, disturbing American film ever made, and that in and of itself, is a tremendous fucking achievement.


The Hitcher (1986) vs The Hitcher (2007)

The HitcherHorror movies are a great way to explore the feelings of anxiety and fear that are inescapable by-products of living in the insane fucking reality we all inhabit. Sometimes the fear represented is an intangible part of our subconscious and other times it is based upon violent and terrifying experiences from the real world. In the case of The Hitcher films, the fear is based upon the anxiety derived from bringing a total stranger into your car, or getting into theirs. In reality, numerous people on both sides of this interaction have met with deadly ends, so the effectiveness of these films is reliant in large part on how authentically they can represent that legitimate danger. A lot has changed in the twenty-one years between these movies but some dangers never lose their relevance, regardless of how many technical advances we make.

The original follows Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is driving through the American southwest to deliver a car to a client in California. When he sees a man (John Ryder, played by the exquisitely creepy Rutger Hauer) broken down in the rain, he is kind enough to offer him a ride, but almost instantly regrets his decision when it becomes clear that Ryder is a murderous psychopath. After literally kicking Ryder out of the car, Jim soon finds himself embroiled in a fight for survival with the crazed man on the sparely populated desert highway.

The remake features the same basic conceit, with the primary difference being that college-age couple, Jim and Grace (Zachary Knighton and Sophia Bush), are instead driving through New Mexico on their way to spring break in California. Their relationship also effectively functions as a replacement for Jim’s (sort of) love interest from the first film, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

The first question when comparing an original to the remake is, naturally, “how well does the original itself work as a film?” In this case, the concept it’s working with is unusual and interesting, as well as being grounded in a legitimate real world fear. The acting is overall very solid and Hauer really shines in this chilling portrayal of a subtly crazed sociopath. The film also does a good job of holding the audiences attention with a series of plot points that keep the tension up. So, overall a solid film, but in this case, it was also one that left significant room for improvement in certain areas.

The primary one would have to be the fact that many of the major plot points rely on very coincidental events that are taken for granted and never really explained, especially towards the end. In addition, the movie is grounded in a reality-based world, yet Ryder seems to possess near supernatural ability when it comes to always being exactly where he needs to be or, say, shooting down a helicopter with a hand gun from a moving car (!). Some minor spoilers going forward here, but I also have to say that the movie goes to great lengths to tease a larger connection and sense of purpose between the characters but ultimately fails to pay it off in a satisfying way.

The quality of the film is also chipped away by a series of unanswered questions that pile up throughout. How exactly did that finger get in his fries and why didn’t he tell the cops about it? If Jim’s the one that called the police from the diner why would they immediately assume he’s the killer? If you’re on the run and ditch a stolen cop car, wouldn’t the first thing the police do be to check the nearby motels? And so on and so forth.

Now, even though I do my best to watch movies with an open mind, I think I can speak for most horror fans when I say I have a bit of inherent bias when watching a remake, that it will simply be a lazily written cash-grab that pales in comparison to the original. Indeed, when the remake started with an attractive young couple that looked straight out of central casting, road-tripping their way to spring break while the shittiest possible song played in the background, I thought I had this film’s number. But as soon as that unpleasantness was over, the remake began to do what remakes so rarely do and present a more compelling, realistic version of the original story that actually polished up the mistakes. While it’s certainly true that over-explaining is a sign of poor filmmaking, the remake actually strikes the right balance by going into more detail with scenes that needed it and incorporating more realistic and logical solutions to various problems the characters face. I also like that the characters initially make the sensible choice to not pick him up but through a series of reasonable events end up in a situation where it actually makes sense to offer him a ride.

I also want to be clear that the original is sorely lacking in blood and, overall, fits much more comfortably in the thriller category rather than horror. The remake rectifies that issue and also adopts a tone that pushes it away from the action-thriller feeling of the original firmly into the category of horror-thriller. This is especially true of a key scene towards the end that was begging for gore in the original which the remake fully delivered on.

In a way, I feel like it was a missed opportunity to not have C. Thomas Howell take up the role of Ryder in the remake.  It would have set the film up as more of a sequel with very dark implications and we could all just pretend that the straight-to-video The Hitcher 2 never existed.  However, Sean Bean is just so fucking good in the role that I couldn’t possibly advocate for it going to anyone else. In fact, as good as Hauer was, I feel that Bean was able to really convey a clearer sense of motivation and understanding of the character that greatly benefited the overall product.

Ultimately, this is what a remake should be, a film that stays true to the concept of the original while polishing up the rougher edges. It’s also a good reminder that you can’t really judge a film until you see it and preconceived notions are often wrong.

Winner The Hitcher 2007