“He’s just a child!”
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions ‐ I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick is among the most recent I’ve covered for this column, but while other films have been lost to time this one spent a few years trapped in customs. Not literally, of course, but while Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury‘s third film hit French screens in 2014 it only released here in the States this year. And even then, it bypassed theaters and home video to go directly to streaming. (Happily, it’s streaming on Shudder.)
A pregnant woman (Béatrice Dalle, the killer from Inside) clearly fed up with life takes a bat to her husband’s head before attacking her son with a knife. She’s prevented from hurting the boy too terribly and instead turns the knife on her own belly and throat. Father and son leave the nightmare behind and head out to find a new life.
Some years later, three boys get into trouble and earn a shared detention, but it’s far from enough to dampen their day. They make a break and spend some time smoking before deciding to ramp up their antics and burn down a grumpy old man’s barn, but when that plan goes awry they make a new plan. They head to the rundown remnants of Blackwoods Film Studio, an abandoned wonderland of film sets and props, but almost immediately their fun grinds to a halt. They find a woman bound and gagged in a car trunk, but before they can free her they’re forced to hide from a large man in a mask. It only gets worse when they follow him into a subterranean chamber to discover an older man and a den of depravity. They run but leave a clue to their identity behind, and soon the consequences for their behavior grows far more serious.
Bustillo & Maury burst onto the movie scene with 2007’s Inside as part of the French “extreme horror” boom of the last decade that also included High Tension and Martyrs. But while Alexandre Aja and Pascal Laugier moved on to Hollywood in short order with The Hills Have Eyes and The Tall Man, respectively, Bustillo & Maury never quite secured that follow-up. (That changed this year with the sadly lackluster Leatherface.) Instead, the pair directed Livid and Among the Living and watched as neither film crossed the ocean to the promised land.
Neither reaches the same intensity as Inside — but on the plus side, neither feature characters nearly as stupid either — but Among the Living still ratchets up the tension as it shifts from a playfully mischievous Amblin adventure to something far creepier and exponentially more brutal. Themes of family and consequence are woven between the hi-jinx and the carnage as it builds to a gory conclusion.
The three friends come from families that vary in size, structure, and happiness, but they’re not nearly as broken as the old man’s and his son. Tom (Zacharie Chasseriaud) lives with his dad who’s a physically abusive drunk, Dan’s (Damien Ferdel) parents are together but distant, and Victor (Théo Fernandez) has a step-dad after losing his own to cancer a few years prior. We get a pretty good sense of their personalities as they interact, banter, and cause trouble.
It’s that trouble that comes home to haunt them as the film makes it clear that actions have reactions, and while some are minor in the form of a mean teacher issuing insults and detentions others come in the form of a giant man-child whose only expression is violence. The film’s shift into home invasion territory shows not only the directors’ eyes for gory brutality but also their affinity for milking suspense, framing terrifying shots, and a desire to leave nearly no innocents left standing. The killer moves one by one through the three boys’ home lives leaving wrecked and damaged carcasses in his wake, and slightly out of focus glimpses of his pale, naked, hulking form work well to unsettle.
As mentioned, this film doesn’t plumb the same depths of character stupidity as Inside, but there are some logic issues involving how this naked giant not only finds all three boys’ homes (he has one of the addresses) but also how he avoids detection while moving through town. These questions are only as annoying as you let them be, though, as the film works best as the sweaty, bloody fever dream of young teenage boys caught up with thoughts of sex, violence, and a son’s relationship with his father. One of theirs is abusive, one is absent, and the other has died and been replaced, and now they’re facing off against a “boy” whose own dad has stuck by him every bloody step of the way.
It’s an intriguing dynamic, and while the film doesn’t explore it as well as viewers might have hoped there’s enough of its DNA in Among the Living to make this nightmare a thought-provoking one. And if that fails for you, well, at least you get a scene with a guy’s face being sliced off and the torrent of blood that follows.
Follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
Watch Among the Living on Shudder (via Amazon).
Related Topics: Missed Connections