“Among the Living”
Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
Starring Beatrice Dalle, Anne Marivin, Nicolas Giraud, Francis, Renaud, Xacharie Chasseriaud, Damien Ferdel
Pitched as a crossroads between Stand By Me and Friday the 13th, Among the Living builds a beautifully unsettling landscape only to take a sledge hammer to it in its run-of-the-mill, slasher-standard third act. It’s a roller coaster of quality, ticking upwards in fitful bumps, building mood and anxiety in the gorgeously photographed, kaleidoscopic backwoods of rural France. Strapped in and nervous, we’re primed for the fall, ready to rocket around unexpected twists and turns, thrown for 360s, tossed into loops and amped to arrive at the end wide-eyed and breathless. When we do reach the precipice and look unto the other side though, the sinking feeling in our stomach is one born of disappointment, not terror. Instead of a winding track, heinous turns and caveats into foggy caves, it’s a one-track rail cruising straight to the end. On this straight and narrow pathway, there’s nothing new, little remarkable and hardly anything exceedingly effective. And while the build up may be right on the money, the climax feels more like a bag of change.
This kids-vs-killer horror works best when serving salty scoops of anticipation – when it’s table setting – and the first scene is absolutely dreadful proof of that fact. Planted mise-en-scène, we start the show scrambling to catch up with the chaos unfolding around us, trying to figure out why knifes are brandished and guns popping off. A man defends his child against his own wife and we know not why or what he did to deserve such a reaction but it prods both our panic center and curiosity hub. It’s the ideal cold open that leaves us questioning how the pieces will fit together.
At first glance, there’s no denying the scene is perfectly set for an unsettling and mentally distressing horror feature to unfold, one that would live up to the mantle of European filmmaking duo Julian Maury and Alexndre Bustillo. Bustillo and Maury have etched out a name as a sort of Crimson Underground of French new wave horror. Their cult favorites, Inside and Livid, too indie to nab a US release, their work is so off the beaten path that you’d be hard pressed to find them on DVD, save ever in an actual theater. So to say their handiwork is a rarity is an understatement, which made my initial anticipation for their latest film that much more.
Even while I was at the screening, a stranger turned to me and outright asked, “So why are you here?” Like the other uninitiated, I was here on a hunch, attracted by the synopsis and one intriguing promo picture that I’d seen. The stranger gleefully informed me that I was in for a treat. Unlike the kind of “treat” I was expecting, Amongst the Living was more like a can of gummy worms that’d been dropped in the sand. Once the gambit is up, it’s not worth chewing your way through the remains.
Famous for their excessive gore and deadly somber tone, Maury and Bustillo earn an outpouring of deference from their fans but I have to wonder after a showing like this, how many will truly be satisfied. Seeing the thing transform from a genuine creeper into your humdrum slasher is like witnessing a mall parking lot flasher expose himself to you. The sad truth of the matter is in both cases, there’s often not a lot to show.