French writing/directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury made big waves in the horror world in 2007 when they unleashed the visceral simplicity of Inside. Virtually a one-set movie, it was effectively two women and a load of sharp implements doing battle around a house.
Lean, mean and gore-soaked, Inside won acclaim from fans who placed it as a key part of what seemed like a wave of French horror that also included High Tension, Frontier(s) and the brutal philosophy of Martyrs. But, instead, the wave broke. All of the other directors involved went Stateside and turned to English-language films, while things seemed to go quiet for Bustillo and Maury.
And so to 2011, and Livid.
If Inside was the pair keeping things stripped-down, Livid is embracing a whole mess of horror cliches and looking to give them a fresh twist. It is a tactic that comes very close to success. But not quite.
Lucie (Chloe Coulloud) is a young woman trapped by circumstance in a dead-end French village. Her mother (a wordless cameo by Inside alum Beatrice Dalle) committed suicide eight months ago and her father and is bringing in his girlfriend to live with them. Her boyfriend William (Felix Moati) works with his father as a fisherman while his brother Ben (Jeremy Kapone) works for their mother in the local pub.
To try and break out, Lucie takes on a job as a caregiver for the elderly and is shown the ropes by experienced nurse Mrs. Wilson (Catherine Jacob). Amongst the patients is a comatose elderly woman in a gothic mansion rumoured to house some kind of treasure. Together with William and Ben, Lucie decides to break in that night – Hallowe’en night, naturally – to seek out the riches and maybe find a way to escape their collective bleak lives.
Livid is something of a love letter to horror movies. The set up of three young people creeping around a creaky old house on Hallowe’en is textbook stuff. It acknowledges its heritage, too. Ben and William’s bar is named the same as the one in An American Werewolf in London while the bed-ridden old lady is a former dance teacher who has a certificate…from the dance school in Suspiria. At one point, three children appear in Halloween III: Season of the Witch costumes which leads Ben to hum the Silver Shamrock jingle from that underrated film.
The objective is clearly to mix familiar elements up. Livid has a twist on the vampire mythos and creates a dark fairytale vibe throughout that throws up some striking visuals and almost poetic moments.
The pacing is perfect, too. The steady build-up works perfectly, with Coulloud’s Lucie becoming likeable and – more importantly – believable. The tension is subtle, but grows and grows. What IS going on in the house?
Then the reveals start coming. And keep coming. After a terrific first half, the wheels come off in spectacular fashion. The script starts throwing in an array of ideas. Some lead to striking and effective visuals – a floating girl in a blood-soaked tutu, a chamber accessible only by passing through a mirror, a creepy clockwork taxidermy tea party and more – but too many seem half-formed.
Part of the effectiveness of great horror is to keep aspects unexplained and mysterious, but Livid goes too far. Antagonists appear for one scene then are never seen again. Intriguing concepts are left hanging. To top it all, the lead trio start acting in incredibly illogical ways as the plot requires.
Despite these stumbles at the finishing line, Livid is still to be lauded. Like a cross between the brothers Grimm and Dario Argento, this is a stylish, atmospheric piece of filmmaking that only falters under the weight of its own imagination. If only more movies had that flaw.
Disappointingly, this is a bare-bones DVD release, so the only extras on board are some trailers.