Terror Cult: French Gore Films

Devon Ashby explores just how messed up the French can really get in these disgusting horror movies.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Each week on Terror Cult, CraveOnline zeroes in on a particular, obscure fringe of the horror genre, illuminating its key examples and the common threads that bind it together. This week, we explore the recent cache of thematically bleak and visually gut-churning gore movies from France, which are some of the most emotionally leveling and uncompromisingly violent ever made.

The French have a reputation worldwide for near-comical nihilism, which isn’t shocking considering what a nasty country France can be. France is responsible for the guillotine, Existentialism, the Marquis de Sade, and countless other horrible crap, plus they’ve weathered an endless string of bloody political revolutions, most notably the Reign of Terror. It takes a lot to upset the French, and accordingly, some of the most uncompromisingly bleak and spine-crushingly perverted gore movies of recent years have been produced and directed by French people.

Whereas, say, Korean supernatural horror is often moody and depressive, French gore movies breeze past soul-probing tragedy into darker realms of brusque and unapologetic misanthropy. The ethos of the French gore film is soul-crushingly devastating, and its violence is mind-blowingly extravagant. French gore movies aren’t just run-of-the-mill disturbing grotesqueries – they’re like porn for Cenobites.

Another notable trait of French gore movies is their emphasis and expansion of the femme fatale archetype. French gore films often feature female psychopaths, and their story arcs very often revolve around uniquely female problems and insecurities, or relationships between female characters. Many traditional slasher movies feature female protagonists, but in French gore films, the predator and the prey both very often are female.

What follows is a list of notable French gore films from the first decade of the 2000’s, which is when the subgenre first began to really hit its stride. Some of these movies are traditional balls-out horror movies, and a few have more obscure creative motivations, but they all share a brutally unflinching desire to shock, offend, and devastate both the mind and soul of the viewer.

High Tension (2003)

Borrowing and subverting an archetypical splatter plotline, High Tension is the story of two roommates on vacation in the countryside whose pleasant study holiday is spoiled when they’re targeted by a serial killer. High Tension caused an international stir upon its initial release thanks to its high gore quotient and innovative, twisty storytelling, which leaves the viewer with a uniquely unsavory aftertaste. The core of the movie’s narrative revolves around the unspoken dimensions of the relationship between the two female students, and the eerie twist ending exploits those unsettled emotional facets to the fullest.

In My Skin (2002)

Probably the hardest movie on this list to watch is In My Skin, a no-frills character study of a woman slowly losing her marbles in the face of grinding work pressures and indifferent or hostile personal relationships. Akin in some ways to the socially critical female psychopath subgenre, In My Skin’s protagonist eschews vengeance against others in favor of brutality directed vengeance against her own body, developing a gradual obsession with extreme self-mutilation. The film’s more grim sequences are nearly impossible to sit through, devolving into an orgiastic mess of wound-tonguing, skin-chewing, and knife-probing, and its themes about loss of control and identity are as uncomfortable as its gore sequences.

Mutants (2009)

Mutants is a fairly standard take on a Romero-esque zombie apocalypse scenario, involving a pair of married scientists hiding out in an underground bunker and waiting apprehensively for government rescue. Constantly at their heels is a roving band of formerly human mutant cannibals, the product of a viral epidemic that has reduced the local population to a hoard of blood-puking flesheaters. Mutants is decidedly less French than most similarly grue-encrusted entries from its nation of origin, but it’s still a fairly solid low-grade isolationist horror movie with a characteristically melancholy twist.

Inside (2007)

Also affiliated with the psychotic women subgenre, Inside features a female stalker intent on stealing the pre-natal offspring of a protagonist still reeling from the recent death of her husband. Trapped inside her own home and witness to a gory series of auxiliary murders, Inside’s protagonist is forced to fight a bloody battle, not just for her own life, but for the life of her unborn child. Inside hinges on a twist ending that feels slightly forced and unnecessary, and its real-time isolationist narrative is decidedly sparse. Regardless, it’s a brutal and blood-drenched film, augmented by the harsh and immediate pain of loss.

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Directed by Claire Denis, Trouble Every Day stars Vincent Gallo, who has gained notoriety as the questionable star/filmmaker responsible for Buffalo ’66 and The Brown Bunny. Subtler in its storytelling than most similar French gore films, Trouble Every Day is a movie about neurological experiments resulting in the exorcism of self-immolating, cannibalistic lusts. The movie’s most memorable scenes involve the same gut-wrenching variety of blood-licking and tendon-sucking that characterize In My Skin, and its laconic and deliberate atmosphere make it both a more subtle and a more profoundly unsettling film than much of its bombastic brethren.

Martyrs (2008)

Kicking off as a brutally introspective serial killer movie about the intense friendship between two young veterans of a youth hostel for troubled children, Martyrs quickly takes an unexpected turn and ends up in obscure, vaguely supernatural terrain. After escaping from a bizarre and brutal torture dungeon, a young girl named Lucie is befriended by fellow problem child named Anna. Anna’s devotion to Lucie extends into early adulthood, even after Lucie resolves to seek vengeance against the shadowy syndicate she believes is responsible for her childhood ordeal. When things go awry and the girls are separated, Anna discovers that Lucie’s theories may not have been as paranoid as they seemed to be, and finds herself forced to contend with her friend’s assailants. Slow-burning through an unforgettable, prolonged torture sequence that climaxes with one protagonist being skinned alive, Martyrs is a haunting movie, less for the extremity of its violence than for the lurking metaphysical darkness it conjures.

Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and the writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.