The second-to-last of my long-overdue conclusion to the Carry On Campaign requests is courtesy of Vianney Boncorps, who donated twice and requested two reviews, the second of which proved awfully tricky to manage, for the unanswerable reason that the movie has never been released in the United States in any format and doesn't seem to be on the way. But I was not about to disappoint Vianney, so here we are.
The Village of Shadows is one of the most successful horror movies of the last several years. For it is heavy with a grim, moody atmosphere like you wouldn't believe; it is an atmosphere that you can almost spoon out of the movie like a particularly rich and velvety ice cream. Everything is working in tandem: the cinematography is more laden with deep dark blacks that sometimes cover all but a tiny corner of the frame (compared to this film, The Descent had perfectly ordinary, functional lighting), the sets and props exude a sense of age and corruption that would be eerie and unpleasant to look at even under perfectly even daylight conditions, the combination of ponderous camera movement and jagged editing does the best possible job of communicating to the audience, "in just a few moments, something is going to pop up and frighten you", and any connoisseur could tell that the anticipation created that way is far more nerve-wracking than the thing popping up itself. This is only the first feature made by director Fouad Benahmmou, but he's got his technique down cold.
There are those who would argue that it is not the case that the only important achievement of a horror film is atmospheric; that, in fact, there needs to be a clear and compelling narrative about clear and compelling characters in order to give that atmosphere its proper place to breathe; essentially, that if we don't know or care what's going on and to whom, it's not really possible to engage with the film in any but a superficial way. And this is a fair argument, if not one I particularly agree with. But let us concede it; a horror movie has to make some kind of sense. In that case, The Village of Shadows is an outright shambles, one more incoherent bad horror movie out of dozens with a cast of largely undifferentiated pretty young people behaving in ways that neither you nor I nor any real human being of our acquaintance would think to behave, just to motivate their arrival in a position in which they can die horribly.
To be completely fair, some of the most howling contrivances and unexplained leaps of logic end up having a reasonable - or, let's say, conceptually sound - explanation in one of the story's multiple twist endings, so it's not as though The Village of Shadows makes absolutely no sense at all. Only that it seems that way for about 80% of the running time, which is maybe not that much better. Anyway, my point is that it doesn't matter: there is something exciting about being dropped into a situation as apparently meaningless as this and being blasted with wave after wave of spooky theatrics. I'll get back to that later.
The film opens, as every film should, with Nazis; in particular, with Nazis being hunted and tormented by something in the tiny French village of Ruiflec, on 8 August, 1944. Jump ahead some 60+ years, and we find two carloads of college students traveling to that same Ruiflec, on the invitation of Lucas (Axel Kiener), who grew up there. There are nine kids in total, and keeping track of them is nearly impossible, especially since the movie doesn't seem any more interested in doing so than we do, but it becomes obvious fairly early that the ones we have to pay attention to are Emma (Christa Theret) and Marion (Ornella Boulé), two sisters who are barely on speaking terms, for reasons that are explained - surprise, surprise - all the way at the end. Basically, what happens is that one of the cars ends up abandoned on the side of the road, leaving the other half of the traveling party to head into Ruiflec to find their missing friends; here we learn that Ruiflec is a decrepit, seemingly empty ghost town with absolutely no means of contacting the outside world. Also, by "ghost town", I meant "town filled right the fuck up with ghosts", for there is clearly a Something or Many Somethings that are full of anger and very much disinclined to let any of the kids get out of town alive.
That is as far as I want to take the plot synopsis, since virtually the entire point of The Village of Shadows is that the characters have to figure out what's going on - it is a plot about solving a puzzle, essentially, and thereon hangs my theory. Basically, the film does two things: it creates an environment that is top-to-bottom filled with horrifying details (production designer Sébastian Inizan and set decorator Emilie Poncet did as phenomenal job of making Ruiflec look so evil that you just about can't stand it), and it offers several chances for the characters to learn one thing about the goings-on, interspersed with moments in which they have to run about and hide from the Things That Go Bump. Some of you have undoubtedly figured out where I'm taking this, but here's my punchline: what it felt like to me was playing a survival horror video game - the opening stages of Resident Evil 4, specifically, but that's not really germane (more germane: The Village of Shadows does a better job of feeling like a survival horror game than the actual movie version of Resident Evil or its sequels). I am not suggesting that Benhammou and his co-writers Pascal Jaubert and Lionel Olenga deliberately set out to turn game narrative logic into a movie - the director's stated intent was to create a moody horror film with little to no actual blood and guts and gore, in protest against French cinema's full-throated embrace of splatterpunk movies in the last decade - but the appeal of The Village of Shadows is basically the same appeal as playing one of those games. Or watching somebody playing one of those games, more to the point. But it's the same difference: it's all about being thrust into a hugely rich and evocative environment and getting answers dribbled out piecemeal as you explore.
I'm not even completely sure that's a defense of the movie, but it, at a minimum, makes it somewhat unique. There's plenty else that's worth liking, at any rate: the explanation itself, while kind of silly (it revolves around all sorts of permutations of "8", and the movie takes place on 8/8/08 - ooh spooky) does something that is unfathomably rare in horror cinema, which is that it actually improves the movie. It's an article of faith, for me anyway, that ghost stories are invariably more effective when we don't know what the hell is happening, and that the moment the ghost gets described and thus "contained" by narrative possibility, it becomes less threatening. Here, the exact opposite happens: the movie, which has been puttering from scene to scene without building any real momentum (some of the individual scenes are great - a cluster of people stuck in a car with the windows covered in frost is a major highlight - and some are not much good at all), suddenly takes focus, and now that we know what's up with the frowning, bright-eyed little boy that has been appearing and vanishing, he's far more terrifying than when he was just a run-of-the-mill J-horror reference.
It's not a great film - unlike the Italian films which are equally as flimsy in the writing department, and which The Village of Shadows occasionally resembles (there's some early-'80s Lucio Fulci in there, though it's less obvious than the Japanese influence, or even the Hostel films and their ilk, which the film structurally parodies), the imagery never achieves the surrealistic, poetic abstraction that makes it artistically great, rather than just supremely effective in the campfire ghost story register - but it gets the job done with flying colors. Once it gets cooking, slightly more than halfway through, it's as relentlessly creepy and prickly as any other horror movie of late, even granting that ghost stories have been somewhat on the rise and doing far better for themselves than their exploitatively gory cousins. It takes a bit of seeking out for those of us not lucky enough to be fluent in French, but the search is worthwhile: shortcomings and all, this is one hell of a potent horror movie.