In the wake of the kick to the backside, administered a few years ago to a genre grown increasingly complacent, by a handful of uncompromising directors who spawned a mini-trend in new wave ‘extreme’ French horror, it hardly now comes as a surprise to see the current crop of Francophone entries finding it difficult to measure up alongside the likes of their influential predecessors, such as “Inside” or “Martyrs” -- films whose taboo-busting nastiness took the modern horror film about as far as it could go down that path, without playing to the Pavlovian spasms of moral disgust recently provoked by such delightful gems as “The Human Centipede” or “A Serbian Film”.
Writer-director Franck Richard is the latest new talent to try his hand though, and there is much to recommend his derivative but effective and well-made little debut cross-genre vehicle, “The Pack” (“La meute”). Richard’s film takes its moody, brooding ambience and uber-cool female punkette heroine-with-attitude from “Haute Tension”, while the mid-movie narrative left-turn, which comes about as a result of Richard’s knowing mash-up of horror sub-genres, is a trick taken straight from “Martyrs”. But the mere fact that “The Pack” is following diligently in such influential footsteps is the main reason Franck Richard almost certainly won’t be making anything like the same impact on the genre as Alexandre Aja and Pascal Laugier once did before him.
The film opens -- after the distinctive blood-red type set against black of the opening titles -- on a stark, wintery dawn: a single car traverses a narrow, semi-lit road dwindling its way through an isolated landscape; distant city lights blink dimly through a shroud of morning fog, and looming above the scene, emerging out of the grey flatness, wind turbines brood silently -- their blades churning in the gloom. The lone occupant of the car is Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne), a twenty-something punk chick on the road to nowhere, determined to drive ‘til her CD collection is exhausted, undisturbed by the lewd remarks of a gang of moronic greasers she encounters later that morning on one of many roadside truck-stops along her way. She picks up a silent but friendly hitch-hiker called Max (Benjamin Biolay) who later attempts to defend her when they’re attacked and threatened with sexual assault by the same greasy motorbike gang, this time at an even more rundown and isolated truck-stop-cum-junkyard, called La Spack, out in the wilds of the French countryside. The two are saved after the intervention of the rotund old woman with a receding chin after whom the rundown stop-off is named (Yolande Moreau), who sees the gang off with a double-barrelled rifle, threatening to ‘redecorate my lino with your ball juice!’
Max disappears to the bathroom, but strangely doesn’t return for hours. Charlotte waits … and waits, but when she finally investigates, he’s nowhere to be found, with no obvious exit discernable apart from a sealed-off doorway leading somewhere into the interior of La Spack’s house. Charlotte waits until nightfall and then breaks back into the closed establishment to investigate … only to stumble into a nightmare of imprisonment, torture and a macabre horror even worse than anything she could have ever imagined!
The murky countryside setting, the stark atmospheric photography of cinematographer Laurent Barès and a gritty, threatening mood of isolation and desolation encouraged by Richard’s terse screenplay, certainly set us on our guard at the outset for yet another Gallic foray into extreme “Frontiers” backwoods imprisonment country. The “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” references are present and correct and very deliberately situated to attract our attention once Charlotte enters the darkened interiors that lurk behind the scenes of the dingy truck-stop: from a large freezer cabinet out of which we might reasonably expect a trussed-up body to spring, to the moment later on when the captive protagonist witnesses her chief tormentor slamming shut a heavy sheet-metal door, a la Leatherface, from her dank iron cage.
Naturally, from here on in it might appear that we’re heading into all too perfunctory ‘torture porn’ territory: Charlotte’s two eccentric captors slice up body parts of previous victims behind the washing line in their backyard, and toss the chunks into a bubbling bath-full of acid; Charlotte is brutally branded with an iron heated with a blowtorch, and finds herself strapped into a bizarre makeshift contraption that looks like the kind of low-tech, rusty, diesel-driven trap an impoverished backwoods version of Jigsaw might use to torment his hapless victims with. This one seems to force-feed -- through a series of tubes -- those unfortunate to be on the receiving end of it, with a gloopy, bloody-black molasses mixture that looks something less than entirely nutritious.
For the first half of the film we’re led to expect that this is the chosen sub-genre we’re to be dealing with from here on, but if you’re not, by now, too bored of the whole torture shtick to sit it out until the forty-minute mark, you’ll see the film perform a narrative volte-face and suddenly transform itself into a rather unlikely but nicely wrought tribute to 80s Lucio Fulci zombie films! Okay, so it still might not exactly be the most original development one could imagine, but this is at least where the film truly hits its stride. It seems the motive for all the imprisonment, torture and hurried chopping up of bodies during the first half comes down to the need to secretly provide food for an identically dressed horde of ghoulish zombiefied creatures, that live in the slagheaps of a nearby disused mine.
Fans of Italian horror will no doubt enjoy spotting that the precedent for the creature design seems to be lumbering Doctor Freudstein from Lucio Fulci’s “The House by the Cemetery”! Whether or not you, a) even notice this in the first place and, b) think that it is actually a really cool thing, will largely determine how you react to the film from here on in. The screenplay throws all logic out of the window in terms of character behaviour and plot (in other words, it’s just like a typical ‘80s Italian Fulci gore flick), and resolves itself into a number very well-realised and extremely creepy set pieces accompanied by some fairly convincing Fabio Frizzi-style music by Chris Spencer and Ari Benjamin Meyers, in which the maggoty underground-dwelling undead rise to feast on anyone foolish enough to get in their way -- albeit very, very slowly. There’s a subplot involving an eccentric retired police officer, played by Philippe Nahon, who likes to entertain himself by shoving pencils up his nose and in his ears (?), and if you can accept the improbable fact that after he hears a girl very obviously being attacked and screaming and pleading for her life down a phone, he doesn’t immediately contact the nearest official police channels for help but instead decides to do a spot of Columbo-like (may his soul rest in peace) sleuthing of his own, then you can probably enjoy the rest of the film without too much trouble -- because that’s just the first of a whole bunch of curious decisions the characters then make in order to allow this film to comfortably reach the ninety minute mark.
The fact is though, it doesn’t matter. The climax of events comes with an entertaining and well-shot conflagration inside a hilltop shack (where our biker friends from the opening of the film are now hanging out) after it’s besieged by the hungry mine dwellers -- recalling a similar scene in Fulci’s “Zombie Flesh Eaters”; and Richard even allows himself a few gory laughs before the film gets a tad confused and unsure of itself in the very final moments: clearly unable to decide what tone to take, Richard opts to effectively play out two endings one after the other, passing the quirky odd one off as a dream and then ending on what for French extreme horror is the by now mandatory downbeat note of defeat for the sympathetic characters.
“The Pack” is not anything new or particularly special, but it does hold ones attention well enough for the duration and the ghouls/zombies are actually very well-realised, making a change from the usual undead specimens who so often now appear indistinguishable from film to film. The DVD transfer looks fine, the stereo audio track is perfectly adequate, but the extras are so unremarkable as to barely rate a mention, consisting of only a theatrical trailer and a two- minute feature on, of all things, the design of the DVD cover!