Among the Living – the latest from French horror duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo – was made available to stream on horror platform Shudder this month. It sees the duo drawing upon a distinctly American brand of chiller while still retaining some of the brutality which marked their earlier output like Inside (À l’intérieur in French), a film often cited in relation to the French New Extremity.
Part Stephen King, part Texas Chainsaw (interesting given the filmmakers are set to direct a Leatherface origin story) – it revolves around three young teens who skip class in order to wander around an old abandoned film studio located in the French countryside. There, they become the target of a monster – after discovering its lair and finding a woman held captive.
The film is at times incredibly gruesome, particularly its opening featuring the monster’s mother (a cool cameo from Inside’s Beatrice Dalle) attempt to kill the creature, only to turn the knife on herself after being prevented from doing so. Yet, it transcends torture porn for a number of reasons. Even though, the movie seems like a genre exercise – a resume builder to prove they can make Leatherface, perhaps – there are some meaty thematic elements. Like a lot of Stephen King’s work, its about the evil lurking within a seemingly banal suburbia. There’s much about the loss of childhood innocence as each child is facing familial demons, as well as the literal monster.
There is also a subtle thematic connection to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both films are about a civilised normal world being confronted with the horrors it tries to ignore. The opening scene sets the monster up as a victim of warfare, and when the children attempt to tell people of authority (parents, babysitters, the police) about the woman they saw chained, their alerts fall upon deaf ears – another effort to sweep the darkness under the rug.
The movie is tight, moving from tense scene to tense scene at a steady clip, all while the Maury and Bustillo set the stage for some creepy visuals – in CCTV the pale long bodied monster lurking over a baby’s crib, said baby becoming trapped in a slowly filling up washing machine. In its second half, Among the Living does fall into some genre-trappings. Like many monster movies, when they finally reveal the creature fully its a little disappointing. Its more disturbing lurking within the shadows as an unseen malevolent force than front and centre.
Plus, like many slashers, the film eventually devolves into a string of flamboyant violence and kills, putting much of the solid themes of the movie – on the back-burner. However, even then, Among the Living still grips because Maury and Bustillo know how to stage action with finesse. It’s their skill that elevates the movie, leaving it feeling less like a tired genre flick and more like a well-executed if grim and mean horror. Stephen Porzio