Horsehead (2014) d. Romain Basset (France)
Estranged from her mother (Catriona MacColl) for many years, Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) is called home for her grandmother’s wake. The reception is chilly to say the least, made all the more so by the young university student being placed in the room adjacent to her late relative’s corpse, but her current professor and beau sees this as an opportunity to confront some long-standing emotional issues. You see, Jessica hasn’t had a peaceful night’s sleep in many years, haunted by nightmares featuring an enormous, malevolent horse-headed figure bedecked in long robes with clawed digits clutching an enormous papal staff. As a disciple of oneirology – the study of dreams – Jessica has identified the symbolism of her equine phantom as that of a ferryman, poised to travel back and forth between the realm of the living and dead. In slumber, she is now visited by the spirit of her grandmother Rose (Gala Besson), young and frightened, seeking help from the gathering darkness....
Inspired by the “pure cinema” of Lucio Fulci, where logical narrative is secondary to emotional triggers and memorable visuals, and the gorgeous cinematic aesthetics of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, with their hypnotic if nonsensical lighting schemes, director/co-writer Basset has delivered an extraordinarily ambitious if not entirely cohesive first feature. In following the path of these Italian maestros, it is almost guaranteed that Horsehead will not appeal to all (or even most) Western tastes, coddled as we are with safe Hollywood product and spoon-fed narratives.
However, for the more daring and forgiving cinephile, there are resplendent visual rewards to be found in the erotic and violent dream-world tapestries unfurling within Jessica’s subconscious mind. There is definitely a music video motif at work, similar to Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, but it works well within this setting and it is during these haunting sequences the film really finds its stride. (Basset earned “Best Director” honors at this year’s Fantasporto Film Festival.)
This is another terrific acquisition from Artsploitation Films, in that it suits their mission statement to a T. Yes, there is gratuitous female nudity, but it is just as often bathed in blue and red gels as not, lending it a heightened and symbolic nature. Yes, there are instances of graphic gore and bloodletting, but they are staged in imaginative and, dare I say, beautiful fashion. Yes, there are scares and scenes designed to discomfit, but all in the service of an emotional journey of a broken family looking to heal itself. Like its recent release of Der Samurai, this is a worthy combination of art-house film and grindhouse programmer, one that will challenge fans of both camps, as well as those residing in the safer middle ground.
Basset’s efforts will likely frustrate as many as it satisfies – many of the “real world” scenes are doused in melodrama and on-the-nose declarations, with performances that don’t always feel grounded. But the same could be said of the works the young filmmaker is seeking to emulate, and as such, the same generosity afforded those efforts should be granted. In other words, put on your “Italian Horror” goggles and you’ll probably enjoy the ride a lot more.
Making the Italian connection all the more overt is the casting of MacColl as the resident icy matriarch. The former Fulci star (The Beyond, House by the Cemetery) is no challenger to Helen Mirren’s throne, but she does a fine job anchoring the drama with an underwritten part, revealing a more vulnerable side via the flashbacks/visions that Jessica experiences while drowsing. As her affectionate, peace-making husband – but not Jessica’s biological father, it should be noted – Murray Head (Sunday Bloody Sunday, Chess) lends a warm, benevolent quality that tempers MacColl’s terseness.
Besson is more physical presence than verbal, but her delicate features and natural beauty go a long way toward sustaining the ethereal state of Jessica’s dreams. There’s also some dandy work from the legendary Vernon Dobtcheff as our local handyman, and a welcome cameo from everyone’s creepy French heavy, Phillipe Nahon (High Tension, Calvaire, I Stand Alone). The biggest bungle lies in the decision to dub MacColl’s character’s father (Fuad Ait Aattou) with a dumbed-down “evil” reverb that diminishes any genuine power or threat. Aattou might be a capable enough actor, but when every utterance sounds like a Ghostbusters Zuul outtake, you’re in trouble.
The heavy lifting, of course, is carried out by Pointeaux and her God-given assets (wide eyes, full lips and breasts, pale skin) are her most valuable ones in this case. Not that her “acting” scenes should be seen as demerits, but given the clunkiness of much of the dialogue and her occasionally dodgy accent, it’s no surprise that her wordless interactions are the ones that linger longest in the memory. And no, I’m not going to deny that she looks mighty fine in the buff.
The Artsploitation Blu-ray is enhanced greatly by an hour-long making-of that is as naïve and earnest as the subject it documents. Basset and Pointeaux are our featured talking heads, reflecting back on the long, arduous, and occasionally frustrating journey, but much of the time is spent on-set (back when the project was known as “Fever”) seeing the creative process through the lens of Hughes-Alban Bermond. (Charmingly, the piece is narrated in English by Hannah Mullaghy, since Bermond’s accent was deemed too thick, a fact copped to right off the bat.)
We get a wonderful glimpse into the resourcefulness and imaginative solution-finding that occurs in the world of independent filmmaking, especially when one is aiming higher than a simple backyard zombie shambler or '80s throwback slasher. As is often the case, seeing the limited resources these artists had to work with, juxtaposed with the superlative end results, it’s hard not to appreciate their labors all the more.
Also included are a trailer and four short films by Basset: Bloody Current Exchange (also featuring Nahon), Light Drowning (a one-minute zombie transformation), Remy (a delicate ghost story with a twist on a twist), and Faces and Landscapes of Beaujolais (more music video demo reel than narrative).
Horsehead is available now from Artsploitation Films and can be ordered HERE:
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