I rented a bunch of horror movies so you don’t have to.
Frontier(s) (written & directed by Xavier Gens): The best horror movies, like science fiction flicks, are political, using the tropes of the genre to comment on the state of the contemporary. So when I heard that this French film was about Arab slumdogs rioting on the outskirts of Paris, following the election of a right-wing government, who run into Nazi-holdover cannibals in an outpost inn/mineshaft, I rubbed my hands and licked my lips, anticipating something as savvy as Cargo 200. Unfortunately, Frontier(s)’ politics are so blatant—the Old Right abuses, nay literally feeds off immigrants—that they’re insignificant; writer-director Gens is far more concerned with fashioning a pointless exercise in gore in which entrails are dumped into bins, characters swim through pigshit, men are hung upside down by hooks through the feet, Achilles tendons are snapped, Arabs are melted in Auschwitz-style gassings, and pregnant women in wedding dresses are punched in the face. Yawn. It’s a House of 1,000 Corpses lookalike and a cheap Texas Chainsaw Massacre knockoff—the Nispel version, at that. Grade: C-
Martyrs (written & directed by Pascal Laugier): In case you thought the Saw films were a sign of American cultural decline, the French have been making more than their fair share of torture porn, too, in recent years: Frontier(s) (see above), High Tension (which has the stupidest twist ending ever!), Inside and now Martyrs, a peculiar film that’s really two movies. The first is a sometimes-surprising revenge film, proficient enough; the second, a pseudo-metaphysical exploration of martyrdom (from the Greek for “witness,” the filmmakers remind us, implying that martyrs bear witness to some sort of mortal truth.) Laugier’s ideas are so thin that most of the second half involves Morjana Alaoui vomiting in between getting punched in the gut and smacked in the face. The point seems to be that suffering leads to some kind of transcendent knowledge, and that the fetishization of victimhood is a noble pursuit. Right. Grade: C+
Splinter (directed by Toby Wilkins; written by Wilkins, Kai Barry & Ian Shorr): A few reels into Splinter, I was worried I had rented the wrong movie; David Edelstein was crazy about this? The problem is the actors: Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner, and Rachel Kerbs are all terrible, portraying respectively an escaped con, a haughty biologist, a Last Girl Standing and a fiending addict as nothing more complex than paper dolls; they make the most obvious acting choices. But once they hole up in a gas station’s convenience mart and get attacked by…zombies?, they stop having to be real characters; as they settle down into horror movie archetypes, the movie picks up: it becomes old-fashioned (as in Raimi-esque) fun, with cops snapped in two; autonomous, homicidal hands; and interludes in a chilly beer locker. If you’re dying to see a horror movie, you could do worse (see above), but you could do better, too (see below). Grade: B-
Quarantine (directed by John Erick Dowdle; written by Drew & John Erick Dowdle): You rent handfuls of contemporary horror on the chance that you’ll rent a winner like this. Although, truth be told, Quarantine is a bit dim-witted, what it lacks in intellectualism it makes up for in formal moxie; the movie boasts the same P.O.V. immediacy as Cloverfield: a female video reporter on a fire department ridealong winds up in an L.A. apartment complex, where she’s locked in with a rapidly spreading strain of super-rabies. Every carefully choreographed scene plays out in extended long takes, which give the film an indismissible visceral immediacy. (Dowdle obviously cheats sometimes by moving the camera in and out of shadows, a la Rope.) The problem is that that immediacy goes nowhere; we watch all the action through a camcorder, but the film makes none of the larger points about such that Matt Reeves’ film did, or even Diary of the Dead. At one point the cameraman beats a makeshift zombie to death with his camera. That’s “loaded,” as one friend told me. He’s right—but loaded with what? (It’s possible something has been lost in the translation; Quarantine is a remake of the recent Spanish film [●rec].) As the film winds down, it clumsily answers the origins of its mysteries; it’s unnecessary, as content isn’t what’s important here (though I enjoyed the paranoia and mistrust of government)—it’s the execution. Grade: B+