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10 FRENCH HORROR FILMS That Are So Frightening You’ll Watch Them With Your Eyes Wide Shut

Since the beginning of the 21st century, France has been the go-to country for the latest in horror. Horror, without doubt, is one of the most popular genres. Mostly ignored by critics, horror movies are lapped up by their fans like no other genre. French horror directors generally eschewed jump scares in favor of a feeling of creeping death: cameras were distant, characters were blank and horror was imposing. A lot of good horror flicks often get swept under the rug. They might be too obscure, don’t get the promotion they deserved or are just plain unlucky. Horror is a genre where this happens more than any other.

Pushing boundaries in ways never before seen on the big screen, critics dubbed what was happening as “New French Extremism.” The French Extremist movement has plumbed the depths of gore and human nature, show-casing the worst of human behavior for chills. That aching dread one feels at the end of films by Wes Craven and John Carpenter—that not everything is going to be all right—is prevalent in many such films.

This new generation of French horror more often than not features strong female characters that take severe punishment and come out transformed in the end. At times pushing these combined ideas and influences to unthinkable extremes, the new “French Extremity” revels in pushing buttons and breaking boundaries. Here are 10 french horror movies that you absolutely need to see:

Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani is implausible in “Possession” (1981). It is a performance of supreme dedication to the art of screen acting and also without fear. Andrzej Zulawki’s cinema of hysteria reached a dramatic height with this 1981 film. While structurally a far cry from traditional horror, Possession includes a fair share of monsters, murder, and mystery to secure its place within the genre. Relationship anxiety has never been dialed so high, as the separation of a married couple wreak mental hell on the pair. Adjani gives a career-best performance as the wife addled by lust-inspired madness—reaching a nutty peak in a subway freakout that has to be seen to be believed—and Sam Neill embodies an aggressive aloofness, touching on the film’s ability to channel contradiction with piercing precision. For her role as a young mother going insane, Adjani quite rightly won Best Actress award at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and picked up Best Actress at the 1982 Césars (the French “Oscars”).

La Morte Vivante (1982) = THE LIVING DEAD GIRL

The ethereal nature of white skin against a dark background is at the heart of the film’s appeal. Strangling beauty is at the heart of much of Jean Rollin’s work, as his creatures of the night who prey on unsuspecting victims are usually impossibly beautiful. These women, though, like Rollin’s films in general, are cold—unable, because of personal trauma or nature, to relate to the world and show warmth or empathy. This film is one of the few examples of environmental vampirism, as the cause of the characters’ craving for blood is not venereal but a toxic spill. The eeriness of the atmosphere and the beauty of its leads offers easy compensation. There is a pervading fetishism in Rollin’s work that is found to be endlessly appealing, as the women are both powerful and terribly frail.

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Unflinchingly exploring the themes of body horror, cannibalism, and the extremely taboo idea that satisfying sex must be coupled with violence, this film is a truly unique experiment in boundary-pushing. Acclaimed French art-house director Claire Denis doesn’t often show up on lists of scary-movie masters, but she proved herself a true genius of body horror with this gorgeous, shocking riff on the bloodsucker genre. Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle are the subjects of a scientific experiment that has left them thirsty for the sweet red stuff; yet rather than interpret their lust as either romantic or tragic, Denis treats these monsters as base, carnal, and terribly single-minded. The film’s gory centerpiece is a depiction of extreme erotic hunger as unwatchably gruesome as it is strangely sexy; the film is at times both subtle and extremely gory, leaving the audience to form their own opinions about the ultimate correlation between sex and suffering.

Dans ma peau (2002) = IN MY SKIN

A rare horror film directed by a woman, In My Skin is one of the few horror films centered around trichotillomania—a condition which sees those afflicted pull out hairs and skin. More common among women, it is connected to anxiety disorders and, in this film, exemplifies a mental block for communication. As the protagonist is pulled deeper and deeper into her own self-destructive, self-consumptive psychosis, we sense that her obsession with her body parts is a reflection of her fractured self-perception and troubled relationships. The film puts the audience face to face with a horrifying self-emulation that seems borne out of our society’s toxic pressures to conform to gender and beauty norms.

Haute Tension (2003) = High Tension

High Tension is best remembered for its gory visuals and an ending that redefines the expression “barking mad.” Haute Tension is a masterpiece of slow-building overwhelming suspense. Known in the UK as Switchblade Romance, the film tells the tale of Marie, a troubled young misfit who has been invited to stay with her friend Alex for a weekend of studying. Cécile De France and MaïwennBesco play friends running for their lives, when a serial killer (played by Philippe Nahon) rocks up to their crib and starts massacring folk. The two girls run for their lives, and the masterful sound design and cinematography keep the terror alive right up until the real killer is revealed.

Frontier(s) (2007)

Xavier Gens’s 2007 debut has been described (by Gens) as a ‘love letter’ to the horror genre. Frontiere(s) has become known as a truly revolutionary bit of filmmaking. The film takes place in post-election Paris, where rioting and civil unrest is rampant, and follows a group of young rebels intent on taking advantage of the chaos to pull off a robbery and escape the new political leadership; the robbery goes horribly wrong and the survivors are captured and imprisoned by a family of deranged right-wing lunatics. With a decidedly rebellious political undertone concealed beneath buckets of gore, this film is effective on multiple levels, and even subversively turns the lens on the real life horrors of the Holocaust in ways that many audiences were not prepared for.

Inside (2007)

Inside, or À l’intérieur, is an exercise in minimalism and pure insanity. A plot that can be outlined in one sentence (Pregnant woman gets stalked and tortured by insane person on Christmas Eve.) becomes so much more in the hands of directors Juilen Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Another fine example of French affinity for strong female characters, both the stalker and the stalked belong in this category. This film includes some of the most unflinchingly gory moments and shocking random events of any in recent memory, and never backs down from the horrifically bleak direction it is heading. A typical product of the New French Extremity, Inside is a solid film, both well-written and directed. It is also based on a novel premise and goes against the grain of most horror conventions (for example – you don’t see mad men chasing women).

Martyrs (2008)

Pascal Laugier’s ‘Martyrs’ is arguably the most disturbing horror movie of the 21st century so far. What else comes remotely close? You may need months of therapy after seeing it, too. The complete absence of hope is what makes “Martyrs” such a punishing but remarkable experience. And no, your eyes are not deceiving you. Among the most divisive of French Extremist films, Martyrs offers little redemption for its one-percent aggressors. The story of two women who escaped kidnapping only to search for revenge a decade later transcends the tropes of the torture-porn genre by grounding the brutality in the actions of oppressors. Instead of wallowing in gruesome violence, Laugier prefers to ground the narrative in the spiritual connection between body and soul. The goal of the physical and psychological violations of our villains, as the title suggests, is to find proof of the afterlife by stripping young women of so much of their humanity that they exist between life and death. With religious overtones that make the film seem like a pulpier companion piece to the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Martyrs exposes humanity at its very worst—all in the name of oppressive structures of power.

Mutants (2009)

The acting is convincing and the effects are top-notch as the film progresses to the inescapably bleak ending. A slow-burning and emotionally engaging film filled with great special effects and a claustrophobic environment, this unique take on the well-worn zombie sub-genre is a rewarding viewing experience. The apocalypse is nigh when a virus turns the majority of the human race into blood and flesh-thirsty zombies. Marco and Sonia are desperately fleeing the so called “mutants” in order to get to a military base for safety. However, in the worst possible scenario, Marco is bitten and transformed into a mutant during an attack. A pregnant Sonia must flee the “man” she used to love. Sonia has significant medical knowledge and believes that anything can be cured. Set against a fantastic snowy landscape, Mutants is an above average zombie/apocalypse tale which deals with the issue of love – is it possible to still love your boyfriend whenever he has turned into a mutant?  Shot in dim blue-washed tones, Mutants is a simpler, more intimate story of survival than audiences have come to expect from the overcrowded undead genre. It begins with a pretty standard “zombie movie” set-up in a dreary desperate world, but quickly puts a new spin on the story as this virus involves a very cruel transformation over a period of several days.

Livide (2011) = LIVID

Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury made quite an impression with their debut feature, “Inside.” Their second film, however, dropped the New French Extremism (there’s that term, again) for a supernatural tale of magic and vampirism. It focuses on Lucy, who is taking care of an old woman who may have had a gold treasure buried somewhere in her property. This prompts her less-than-proper friends to decide that they should rob the house one night, as finding that treasure would end all of their financial woes. Livid is that rare thing: a beautiful horror movie.

That’s all folks!

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