CATEGORIES Foreign Language, Horror, Theatrical Reviews, Toronto International Film Festival, Cinematical Indie, Toronto Film Festival, Reviews, Cinematical
After Haute Tension hit the scene and caused a little bit of buzz (if very little attention from the U.S. box office), it only seemed to be a matter of time before a few new freaky French horror flicks would rear their unseemly heads. And here's one of 'em: A patently over-the-top piece of gore-drenched survival horror called Frontiere(s). The debut from writer/director Xavier Gens (who also has a studio flick called Hitman on the way), Frontieres feels like half Texas Chainsaw Massacre and half Hostel, with some liberal dashes of Haute Tension (and even a little bit of The Descent) tossed in to keep things juicy.
We open in the near-future, and France is suffering through a socio-political firestorm. A "right-wing" police state is in effect, and as we settle into the story we're introduced to five criminals on the run: Four hateful men and one pregnant woman. (Guess who's the hero(ine).) After one of the gang members drops dead in a hospital, the remaining quartet splits up and makes plans to meet up at an isolated hotel on the French border. To say these idiots choose the wrong hotel would be a stunning example of understatement.
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the hotel is run by an extended family of Nazi cannibal mega-freaks. And needless to say, they're not very nice. Once both cars arrive on the scene, the cat & mouse carnage can begin in full force. A few of our anti-heroes are dispatched in decidedly unpleasant fashion, but of course we're not suffering through all this slaughterhouse insanity with no promise of catharsis on the horizon. Plot-wise, it's all very familiar and frequently quite predictable -- but boring? Absolutely not.
Gens clearly has some talent for setting a mood, amping up some tension, and delivering all sorts of ultra-splattery madness, but his screenplay often delves down into broad silliness. Whether or not that was his intention, I do not know. Perhaps the sillier sections are meant to act as a tension release -- because if Frontiere(s) is flush in one thing, it's high-end nastiness and enthusiastically over-the-top gore-tossing. (That's twice in this review that I've used the phrase "over-the-top," but it definitely applies here. If you love copious amounts of graphic viscera and undeniably grungy atmosphere, this is an import you'll want to track down.)
But the first-time writer/director bites off a bit more than he can chew in his debut effort. The framing story about the collapse of France's political machine is superfluous at best, pretentious at worst. Plus the movie runs about fifteen minutes longer than it needs to, thanks to a flabby third act that's packed with a little too much chit-chat. The performers scream and shriek when required, and they do a perfectly fine job of it -- and most of the actors portraying the powerfully nasty Nazi clan are more than suitably ... icky. But the biggest problem here is that of simple familiarity; Frontiere(s) feels like a slick-yet-sloppy salad bar that's packed with ideas, themes, characters and plot points that the hardcore horror fans are more than accustomed to by now.
That's not to say the gorehounds and the horror-heads won't find a lot to like here -- just that they sure won't call it original, new or any synonym of the word "unique." The Toronto press screening I attended seemed mixed: Some of the viewers vapor-trailed out of there once the hooks, the knives and the pigs came into play, but the ones who stayed also whooped it up royally through the blood-coated finale.