It's Getting Weird In Here [4 of 4]/ FRIGHTFEST 2015 [Review of HOSTILE]
PLOT SPOILERS ARE IN THIS REVIEW - ONLY READ IF YOU HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE @ FRIGHTFEST 2015!!
Made last year, when he was just 14 years old, director Nathan Ambrosioni's horror film debut played FrightFest 2015's final day and provoked an enthusiastic reaction. He told the audience at the Q&A after, that he had been given freedom to take the film to the horrific extremes he wanted, except for the sequence where one of the two young teenage girls that star in his movie, cuts up a dead fish on the kitchen floor (instead of the mug of mama's cocoa that teenage girls in 70s Hollywood slasher flicks usually go for in the middle of the night; or the protein-packed smoothies of the modern horror era) and young Nathan wanted her to eat it. Raw! What a nice young man this fledgling director must be . . .
Actually, he is - a really nice guy, and comes across well at the Q&A; confident and funny, he makes sure that his cast and composer get asked questions at the end too, before time runs dry, and then hangs out in the VUE Cinema bar after (but not with a beer, I should probably quickly add!).
He's humble about all the attention as well, and with his dad at the front of the cinema, taking all the pictures, he tells us (in response to a question) that - no! - he's not the cool kid at school now, after making this movie. He also speaks about horror with affection, and says he wants to stick with the genre - and loves modern horror, including films like Insidious and The Conjuring. And quite rightly - they're good films that have rebooted the horror genre for a younger, as well as more traditional (ok - older) fan. Hostile, unlike those Hollywood features, we are told, had an extremely small budget - but it doesn't show, and never looks cheap.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW - WATCH BEFORE READING!
The film's composer - Erwan Coic, is also on stage and tells us about a call asking him to work with a 14 year old on a new movie, and not really knowing what to say back at first! But his contribution is vital - languid, dreamlike piano adding the menace and a curiously mature framing of the young cast; a perfect combination with all the surprisingly lush, violently gorgeous cinematography.
'Hostile' dabbles with possible influences. Most notably, Tarantino's infamous Reservoir Dogs ear-cutting scene that was carried out to a seemingly inappropriately upbeat soundtrack (in Hostile, it's a pivotal scene of violence that Ambrosioni shoots mostly static and like a flickering end of the pier peep show with jolly silent movie style musical accompaniment). Instead of an ear sliced off though, here it's a ligament cutting and a nasty blow to the back of the head with a hammer (to a nanny); but less grisly and less shown than you may expect.
Also making an appearance is an Exorcist-like possessed girl doing the yoga crab thing, that the director may have borrowed from more recent examples of its horror movie use than directly from William Friedkin's original '73 blueprint for demonic child possession. Anyway - as a weird film technique, especially when mixed with a twisted neck, it never fails to send shivers down the spine (the actress in Hostile's scene looks to be doing her own stunt and bending her spine back appropriately - I bet Linda Blair never did that!).
There are loads of other possible film references that horror fans can pick up on, but that may only be obvious to us because we are looking for anything to justify a young director's relish for the genre; influences that we may be stamping on his work ourselves and that don't even exist. Named influences, cited by the director himself, are far more modern.
If you still wish to explore connections, then most obvious to anyone watching this movie with any interest in French horror is the classic Jean Rollin (his Requiem for a Vampire one of the best horror movies ever made) look at its centre of two deadly, expressionless girls wandering around in their nightdresses (it could just as easily be clown suits) and staying angelic-faced in the midst of all the bloody mayhem - passive aggressive creatures of the night.
You could also look (and you have to really) at 11 year old US director of Pathogen - Emily Hagins, whose short films we have featured here at Seat at the Back in the past, and especially the essential documentary film detailing the making of Pathogen (2009's compulsive 'Zombie Girl: The Movie') which has to still be the handbook for any young budding horror director out there.
The tendency for loud shock jump scares in Hostile (a bit too excessive at times, although the fast-rising violin crescendos are great) conjure up the thrust of modern horror and really, it's pointless comparing this new movie to older stuff with a grass was always greener glee. The frights in Hostile have a fresh blood vibe and I'm sure that Nathan Ambrosioni wants to reinvent the horror genre, not ride on the back of past glories (although real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren; inspiration behind many modern day horror movies, may also influence later plot developments in Hostile).
This redefinition of the genre and the film being shot without baggage results in auteur-like flourishes of fast editing - less than a second of blink-quick blank space between hectic scenes feels more like a gasp for air and assaults the ears with oddly quiet menace.
Alternating this fast, breathless pace with more languid and ominously slow takes, quickens the blood and there's little (except for those quick scene breaks mentioned) in the way of hush or silence in the movie; soundtrack is either full of a rush of white noise, heels clattering on old stone floors - or pockets of thudding, shrieking, crescendos (occasionally, some inner peace with more of that pacifying, teasing central piano score). Is this what being a teenager feels/ once felt like? This split personality of sound (like the footage itself) is so deliberately random that a demonic possession isn't too hard to believe in - it's in the goddam film reel people!
The plot of Hostile focuses on the two spooky teenage girls - Anna and Emilie, adopted by happy-go-lucky wannabe mummy Meredith (played by Shelley Ward - brilliantly harassed and eventually resigned to having adopted the potential spawn of the devil). At the Q&A after the movie, Shelley translates the director's French responses, as well as doing the same for the Horror Channel interviews broadcast later - a bona fide FrightFest saviour!
Mum finds the adolescent attraction to the dark side that starts dominating events in the house too much to cope with and the constant whispering of an evil presence around them pushes her to the edge. Meredith doesn't call Ghostbusters - she calls SOS Adoption, a TV show hosted by no-nonsense Chloe (Anatolia Allieis) who sorts out all those tricky adoptions that have gone wrong, on prime time telly. Jeez - SOS Adoption! Really? Only in America. I mean - only in France!
Anyway, characters taking an interest in the two weird girls Anna and Emilie come and go: adopted mum; nice people from the TV show; friendly nanny (drugged by the girls - Norman Bates style!) and a couple of creepy paranormal investigators, Jessica and Daniel (played by a wonderfully po-faced Magali Gouyon and Julien Croquet) who make you wish Derek Acorah was back on the scene.
Our paranormal investigative team of two - Jess and Dan, have lots of old tapes they like to show anyone concerned their own family may be possessed by a demon and that detail (in loving close-up) how the worst possessions they have ever witnessed are REALLY BLOODY SCARY just to cheer you up (and some of the film's scariest moments come from this old taped footage - especially of a young family falling foul of a daughter's possession by showing, in quite horrific detail, just how bad things can get between a little brother and his big, bad sister).
Also among the tapes played is a cool cameo from director Ambrosioni himself - typecast, of course, as a creepy possessed teenager (who probably likes making horror films in his spare time!).
The film's brilliant mid-film break to follow the story of another possessed (or at least extremely hormonal) teenager and her 'lamb to the slaughter' little brother's fate (hey - three nasty cases of teenage possession for the price of two!) could exist separately as a great short film in its own right and newcomer Lucille Donier as crazed, demonic, blood-drenched Lucie is outstanding; convincingly and shiftily evil in scenes that terrify even more effortlessly than the film's main plotline (deliberately so - we have to fear the idea of possession as a possible reality for the crazed behaviour of the other two girls). In fact, could more horror movies be like this and dabble in deviating plot developments mid-film? Because that was fun!
Although Hostile's horror thrust is a meditation on family and the devastating effects of demonic possession (and possible parental fears - like drug use, which mum should really have considered from the start), far scarier stuff is still to come, with adults showing up in the film's unsettling finale as the main seeping wound of this now more abusive evil. Not demons. Not possession. Although it could still be both. The final few scenes are terrifying and feel genuinely sinister.
Hostile's plot sometimes veers around themes like a showreel rather than a cohesive movie, but that's not such a bad thing as it means you never get a chance to take a breather. And there is a natural fluidity here, even with the feverish plotlines running around and as wild and wayward as the hormones in a demonic adolescent's brain.
Adding a sharper edge to the horror is the introduction of the suggestion of the use of the drug ketamine, that maybe doesn't really explain much about the crazy stuff that's been going on (and presumably not at all about the third girl's possession) and does seem a bit too easy to use as a serious explanation - but the drug's introduction is really more important only as a red herring. It's a precursor to the final throes of the movie that take us into darker territory and where teenage girls are at the mercy of real men (mainly) and women who don't need demons to be abusing young people for their own gratification or beliefs (whether or not this includes the supernatural kind of stuff, probably doesn't really matter - the intent is all too human).
Although the terrorisation of teenagers in horror is familiar, there's still a certain amount of holding back in mainstream cinema; often from older (than Ambrosioni) directors to show too explicit a threat towards an especially young cast (not always the case though!). It's a safety catch that this film doesn't have and so feels very different to other horror movies showing the effects of possession - even on a far younger girl than any featured in Hostile such as in The Exorcist or Poltergeist (that were still disturbing enough).
There's a distinct air of realism on show throughout; helped by a natural ease of cast in front of the camera, that - perhaps due to the real friendships on set - counters more familiar polished terror and stylised acting in bigger budget, studio controlled horror movies. The unsentimental threat this film trades in (the weak mother is dismissed as a protective force almost from the start - almost like a sulky teen would dismiss the idea as well) is often uncomfortably realistic.
The final scenes involving a claustrophobic place of threat and death which Anna and Emilie have little means of escape from (and their tormented minds splitting between wanting to escape and wanting to go further into the darkness) are genuinely upsetting.
But the film isn't exploitative. Because Ambrosioni pushes forward characterisation first and focuses relentlessly on his young cast members as the centre of this nightmare (even when it veers off in other directions with other people) it makes the quite horrific fate for the two young girls far more something resembling actual loss (of innocence perhaps - and of what could be a game becoming something more sinister in intent, by mistake) and certainly far more demonic in intent than any actual depiction of a monstrous demon could ever be.
Although the film features a number of important male characters, it rarely uses them to much advantage or takes much notice. All the men come across as secondary and weaker characters (not weak actors though - who are all good!) to the female cast (of all ages: the possessed daughters; nanny; mum; paranormal investigator; TV reporter - all equally outstanding) and there are no male teenagers joining the girls at all. Perhaps, at the end of the movie, a man take centre stage of sorts, but even then it feels more like girl power all the way! As to why this is the case - only time, and further films, may tell.
Young Nathan Ambrosioni has made a horror film that burns itself in the memory with a meandering and thrilling unfolding of plot that gets seriously nasty and threatening, relishes making the audience jump as often as possible and carries off a stark and deep visual style with a deft touch for framing scenes (like still photographs - where every pose and shadow counts). I like this film a lot - it's a bloody good horror movie and makes the demonic seem as much of an everyday thing as a visit to the shops. That's kind of the most scary thing about good horror - the mundane being tainted by the supernatural. The film also lives in its own world, where grown-ups exist but don't matter too much - they only exist to make things worse.
I think, as this brilliant young filmmaker (just 14 when he made HOSTILE) gets older and makes more movies, the style may change - but that growing and potentially visionary heart of darkness may not. The film also showcases two young actresses who are certain of future success: Julie Venturelli (who seems so confident and effortless on screen that you assume that she's been acting in cinema projects for years - but this is actually her first major role) and the charismatic, striking and quietly sinister Luna Belan who appears on stage at the FrightFest Q&A with her director and displays real star presence; talking about how she is good friends with Nathan and they worked on this movie (and a short - 'Miss You') together because they wanted to make their own horror film - a project that's clearly exceeded all expectations!
This drugged-up, teenage demon, monstrous mash-up, ended FrightFest on a new-skool horror high. It felt like cinema history was being made. It was exciting to be there, watching it happen.
Je remercie tous les responsables de cette fin de semaine de plaisir purement Francais!
Taking place over the Bank Holiday weekend, August 27th - 31st 2015
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