An emergency medical team, posted in the wilds of a war-torn Former Yugoslavia, is heading back from its latest humanitarian aid mission when the route home is blocked by a UN landmine clearance operation. Rather than wait, the trio -- consisting of estranged dad Mathias (Eric Savin), medical assistant Samir (Arié Elmaleh), and the woman colleague he fancies, Carole (Zoé Félix) – take a side road into the countryside and promptly end up lost in what is surely the East European equivalent of the American horror movie’s ‘Backwoods’ region. Certainly nothing good can possibly come from being stranded in such an isolated spot, as our unsuspecting protagonists soon discover when they’re promptly abducted by a van full of armed aggressors, who bundle them into the back of a vehicle at gunpoint (but not before Mathias is shot in the leg whilst trying to escape), and then knock them out with sleeping gas.
They wake to find themselves imprisoned in a dank, featureless cellar on a rundown farm that’s been kitted out with human-sized cages. There’s already at least one other resident in this unappealing makeshift prison in the middle of nowhere -- and he looks decidedly the worse for wear, as though he’s been there a long time. After some de rigueur rough stuff with tasers courtesy of the slobbering yokels who handle the kidnapping and guard duties in this place, the team are visited by an austere, white coated medic (Philippe Krhajac) who gives them a brief check-up and carefully treats Mathias’ leg wound. But this attention turns out not to be born out of any ultimate concern for his -- or any of the others’ -- health: the gang are earning big money by farming out freshly harvested human organs on demand, taking their orders from a wonky old pay phone on the cellar wall that’s placed right in front of the prisoners, so that each time it rings they know another one of them is for the chop! Just to rub it in, the bodies -- last seen alive being dragged away to be pillaged for their eyes, lungs and kidneys -- are later wheeled back past the survivors’ cages so that the others get to see the now gutted remains of their former friends being taken off to be dumped outside by whistling foreign orderlies. Nice.
Yes, it’s another gutsy French horror film from a talented first time director, and this one has all the hallmarks of being proffered as the major Hollywood calling card with which Yann Gozlan probably hopes to be following Alexandre Aja and Pascal Laugier to mainstream recognition in the states. Whether “Caged” will be the film to afford him that opportunity is another matter entirely. It’s certainly technically well made, with Gozlan proving adept at handling the edgy suspense sequences and drumming up atmosphere from an accumulation of tiny but chilling details. The initial kidnap of the team is particularly well handled, with Carole relaxing in the back seat of the trio’s car listing to music on her iPod, and not realising that the vehicle is drifting to a halt until she is brought up short with the sudden realisation that a masked man is pointing a gun at her through the passenger window.
Zoé Félix is perfectly cast, here, as just that kind of resourceful, willowy female lead you expect to see being forced needlessly to suffer through a French-made survivalist thriller, but herein lies the film’s main problem: while Aja’s debut “Haute Tension” and Laugier’s “Martyrs” were both uncompromising, no-holds-barred kicks up the backside for the genre at the time they were released -- both films taking Horror into some deeply disturbing new areas of physical and psychological torment -- “Caged” is traditional fare all the way, with no real surprises ever looking likely to emerge at any point.
Okay -- it’s got that grainy contemporary ‘torture porn’ aesthetic down to a tee, jittery camera work duly appears when needed for added nerviness, and a gaggle of suitably swarthy looking East European shit kickers are all present and correct as the leering villains (the modern horror film’s now seemingly unquestioning portrayal of everyone in this region of Europe as amoral, animalistic psychos to a man is starting to look seriously iffy!): the kind of people who’d think nothing of taking a piss on an escaping prisoner before shoving him back inside his cage. But we know Carole is going to come good in the end, when one of those drooling foreign guards rips her shirt while indulging in some typical spiteful guard’s horseplay, to reveal underneath the standard uniform of clingy gym vest and a pair of well-toned biceps – the traditional look for all horror heroines of the last thirty years!
Sure enough, the trajectory the plot is homing in on soon becomes very apparent: the film is at heart a familiar story about facing your fears and laying the past to rest. A pre-title prologue presents us with an establishing scene from Carole’s childhood, in which an idyllic French farmhouse and a game of hide-and-seek in the sun with her little sister turns into a nightmare: the young Carole later find’s her sibling’s bloodied body in the garage, the girl having been savagely mauled by the family’s pet Alsatian (dog attacks look to be the next big horror motif, after one also provided the plot springboard for Hammer’s latest offering “Wake Wood”). Terrified, little Carole hides in the family car while the slavering beast prowls outside, all the while her little sister is left bleeding to death on the ground. Gozlan prefigures the fate which lies in store for the grown-up Carole and the others, here, with a clever little clue intended for the French horror buffs in the audience: as she skips off to hide while Carole counts, the sister is seen wearing a blank-faced opera mask much like the one Edith Scob wears in George Franju’s “ Les yeux sans visage” – a film about a surgeon who removes the faces of murder victims he first kidnaps in order to heal his disfigured daughter!
The rest of “Caged” depends on the process of layering a dense web of visual references to this traumatic past event into the body of the story, so that the entire experience becomes about Carole finally atoning and coming to terms with her guilt at her sister’s demise, and making up for her inability to prevent it. In the hotel, the night before the medical team are due to set off home, Carole is left paralysed with fear at the sight of an Alsatian in the corridor: little does she realise that overcoming this fear is going to involve her in one of the most prolonged and brutal pieces of cognitive behavioural therapy anyone could’ve ever dreamed up!
All sorts of other forbidding portents soon begin to loom on the horizon: a sightless girl, encountered on a swing in a derelict forecourt after the trio become lost in the countryside, is an initial reminder of Carole’s inherited sense of guilt-tinged loss. Then the kidnappers all turn up wearing sackcloth masks which look exactly like the face of the scarecrow in the wheatfield that surrounded the farm that was the site of her childhood trauma. The prison to which the group is taken is itself situated in the environs of a similar looking farmhouse … and there is, indeed, an almost identical wheatfield on the edge of it, through which Carole will find she is running for her life in the film’s tense escape-attempt climax.
Naturally, the gang of organ harvesters keep a kennel full of chained, hungry hunting dogs, and at some point we can predict that Carole will have to get past these in order to escape the confines of the cellar and reach freedom outdoors. When left alone in her dark cell for hours on end, the only sounds that can be heard are the howls of these dogs and what sound like the sobs of a child … there’s the requisite dream sequence to explicitly tie all these elements in with the childhood trauma -- just for those members of the audience who hadn’t clocked the rather obvious connections before then, presumably. And when Carole finally makes contact with the child prisoner who does inevitably turn out to be held in the cage next door to hers, she at last rustles up the determination to survive and attempt escape, saving herself and this surrogate for her dead sister after having previously given up the ghost from being forced powerlessly to watch as the others were dragged away one by one to their doom.
Once we accept that this is all going to be a fairly routine exercise in thriller dynamics and manipulated emotions, and that we’re not witnessing the next stage in the evolution of French horror, the film is enjoyable enough. By eschewing the heightened gore levels of its compatriots at the more extreme end of the market, “Caged” comes across as being quite cagey about showing too much, preferring to leave consideration of what is actually happening to those poor souls once that telephone rings almost entirely up to our imaginations, and giving us only the briefest of flashes of the gruesome aftermath of the procedures that go on in the medic’s quarters. The film really comes alive when Carole herself is dragged away to be operated upon, the surly white-clad doctor clamping her right eye open as he prepares to extract an eyeball without, it seems, bothering with the formality of an anaesthetic.
If this was really an exercise in Extreme horror, then the nasty stuff would probably go a lot further than it does here, but instead Gozlan stages a nail-bitingly tense jail break sequence, during which we meet the gang’s matronly cook, slaving over a hot stove in the kitchens while the boys are smoking in the yard; she gets a satisfyingly macabre death sequence later on involving a bowlful of boar’s blood. The ensuing climactic chase sequence is, once again, tightly edited and executed for maximum suspense, as Carole sets out to save the little girl Ana, and those Alsatians from her nightmares come calling again.
“Caged” is one of those films that holds your attention well enough throughout, and a film which has been made with enough capability and skill to keep you on the edge of your seat when it counts – yet it somehow doesn’t really continue to grip the thoughts for very long once it leaves the screen. You won’t be mulling over about it for days afterwards like “Martyrs” or “Inside”, for instance. It does a fine job of showcasing its director’s obvious technical talent, but whether there is any real inspiration behind that technical nous is still an issue that is yet to be resolved.
Optimum Releasing bring “Caged” to DVD with a choice of 5.1 Surround Sound audio or 2.0 Stereo. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.