Calvaire (2004)

I don’t have much affection for the wave of gruesome American horror films about torture that crowded multiplexes in the 2000s, but as soon as you slap the French language on their soundtracks I’m totally onboard.  Part of that might have to do with the assumed sophistication of European cinema vs the horror-of-the-week disposability of Hollywood schlock.  There honestly isn’t that much difference in the tone or staging of the ritualistic torture scenes of Martyrs and their Saw & Hostel equivalents.  Naive, juvenile pretensions aside, however, I do find the grim cruelty of the so-called New French Extremity more thematically thoughtful & purposeful than what I remember of American horror’s torture porn era.  A lot of our critical understanding of torture porn—mainly that it was an expression of guilt over post-9/11 War on Terror interrogation tactics—was assigned after the fact by film scholars searching for meaning in the abject, fluorescent-lit cruelty of the moment.  With the French-language New Extremity films, the political themes tend to be more up-front and recognizable in the text, which makes the excruciating ordeal of suffering through them more immediately worthwhile.  Which is why I jumped at the chance to see The Ordeal (original title: Calvaire) in its newly remastered & rereleased form on the big screen, ducking out of a sunny Sunday afternoon to watch hyperviolent torture scenes in the darkness.  It felt like I was venturing out of the house to participate in some high-minded cultural activity, like going to the ballet or the opera, when in truth I was just watching a Hostel prequel dubbed in French.

In retrospect, it’s amusing that Calvaire felt like a major New French Extremity blind spot, given that it has a muddy & muted reputation among critics and that its production was technically Belgian.  Since a few French-Canadian titles have also snuck into the loosely defined genre, I suppose that latter distinction doesn’t matter much.  As for the former, I do think Calvaire‘s quality speaks well to the superiority of Euro torture horrors over their American counterparts in the aughts, and this modern 2K remaster will likely boost its general reputation among the New Extremity’s best: Inside, Trouble Every Day, Martyrs, etc.  At the very least, I braced myself for it to be far more needlessly vicious than it was, given the wider genre’s fetish for grisly details.  Calvaire does a good job of implying instead of dwelling and, more importantly, of cutting its unbearable tension with gallows humor so it’s not all misery & pain.  Part of my amusement might have been enhanced by the two main characters being assigned names I associate with comedy: Marc Stevens (who shares a name with John Early’s grifter villain on Los Espookys) and Paul Bartel (who shares a name with one of the greatest comedic directors to ever do it).  Regardless, director Fabrice du Welz also amuses himself by framing this grim & grueling torture session as “the best Christmas ever” in its sicko villain’s mind, contrasting the hyperviolent hostage crisis the audience is watching with the delusional family reunion of his imagination in a bleakly hilarious clash of realities.  I don’t mean to imply that Calvaire‘s not also a nonstop misery parade, though.  It’s that too.

If I’m justifying my affection for Euro torture horrors by emphasizing their sense of thematic purpose, I suppose I should be discussing Calvaire as a horror of gender.  The aforementioned Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a traveling pop singer who performs kitschy love songs in a magician’s cape to the adoring women of small, rural villages.  The women throw themselves at his feet as if he were the most glamorous hunk in the world, not a struggling musician who lives in his van.  When he rejects them, they beat themselves up as “sluts” & “whores,” immediately shame-spiraling into self-laceration for being so desperate for affection.  While traveling to his next gig, Stevens’s van breaks down near an empty, isolated inn run by Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who is a little too overjoyed to have Stevens’s company for the upcoming Christmas holiday.  At first, Bartel’s instant affection for Stevens appears to be a reminder of his own glory days as a traveling performer – a hack stand-up comedian with little in common with the pop singer.  However, once you realize that Bartel’s wife has long abandoned him at the inn and he still keeps her remaining wardrobe around as an altar to her memory, that affection takes on a much more sinister tone.  Naturally, Bartel holds the younger, handsomer Stevens hostage as a replacement for his wife, swerving the film into a forced-feminization nightmare scenario that could not be eroticized by even the most desperate of fetishists in the audience.  The women in Stevens’s audience react to his rejection by punishing themselves.  Bartel reacts by violently lashing out, and it turns out he’s not the only man in his small, brutish village who’s been awaiting the “return” of “Gloria.”

Categorizing Calvaire as an example of the New French Extremity (or the New Belgian Extremity or the New Euro Extremity or whatever) is more of a useful marketing tool than it is a valid critical distinction.  There were many films being made all over the globe—including from, notably, America, Australia, and Serbia—at the time that similarly fixated on the physical torment & destruction of the human body for a wide range of varied cultural reasons.  Its place in the horror canon expands even wider from there once you set aside the era when it was made.  Du Welz stirs great tension in his audience through the pattern recognition of knowing where his story’s going as soon as you see Gloria’s abandoned wardrobe, as long as you’re familiar with the earlier grindhouse era of extreme-horror filmmaking in titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and The Hills Have Eyes.  Still, grouping Calvaire in with the New Extremity “movement” is ultimately beneficial to its cultural longevity, as it’s not well known or even well liked enough to have survived the past couple decades without some kind of contextual anchor to distinguish it in the wider horror canon.  And I do think it’s well worth preserving.  It certainly lives up to the “extremity” promised in its assigned subgenre, provoking the audience with the pained screeches of farm animals and brief images of male-on-male rape.  It doesn’t linger on that pain longer than necessary to get its point across, though, and du Welz’s dizzying camerawork as a first-time showoff director aims more to disorient than it aims to dwell.  The torture is excruciating to watch, but it’s not the only thing on the movie’s mind.

Maybe I wouldn’t be so charitable to Calvaire if it were a mainstream American film made in the same era.  Maybe I’m assigning more meaning & thoughtfulness to its nightmare pageantry of forced gender performance and its distinctly masculine violence than the movie deserves.  All I can report that is that in the pub scene where the macho-brute villagers take a break from scowling at each other to dance as make-believe romantic partners, I laughed.  When Paul Bartel declares his “family reunion” with the new “Gloria” to be “the best Christmas ever,” I laughed again.  The hallmarks of its era in Extreme Horror are incredibly effective in creating tension, so a little humor goes a long way in providing some much-needed relief, no matter how bleak.  It also helps tremendously that the film is clearly about something other than the mechanics of the torture itself, something that doesn’t need to be ascribed by academics years after the fact. 

-Brandon Ledet

Sound of Violence (2021)

I never want to fault a movie for being too ambitious for its own good; I really do love an overreaching mess.  The low-budget sci-fi body horror Sound of Violence tests the limitations of that love, though.  Maybe it’s because the film doesn’t trust the audience to keep up with its plentiful, competing ideas – explaining its basic premise & the definition of “synesthesia” twice, once in opening voiceover narration and once in a classroom lecture.  Maybe it’s because some of those ideas are inherently more exciting than others (a killer drum machine vs. an unrequited romance between twentysomethings roommates).  Maybe it’s because its budget can’t always match its imagination.  Whatever the reason, Sound of Violence is overflowing with creativity & gusto that it can’t quite mold into something fully coherent or commendable.  You have to squint past its flaws to appreciate what it’s going for, but it’s mostly worth the effort.

An experimental musician (Jasmin Savoy Brown) seeks self-therapy for her hearing loss and childhood PTSD by creating rhythmic beats out of the recorded sounds of violence, quickly turning her into a serial killer.  That violence also triggers synesthesia, causing her to see cosmic swirls of CG colors.  And she’s in love with her oblivious roommate.  And the kills involve increasingly bizarre torture devices that double as musical instruments.  And we spend some time with the cops on her trail.  There’s a lot going on here once you get past the embarrassing cheese of the childhood prologue and opening narration.  The only problem is that the Color Out of Space-style synesthesia swirls and the musical torture devices that trigger them are 1000x more interesting than any of the other narrative quirks competing for attention.  When our trouble antihero is “composing” (i.e. rhythmically torturing victims to death in preposterous contraptions while effectively tripping balls) you feel as if you’d never seen anything like it before.  The budget, premise, and runtime can’t sustain constant hyperviolence, though, so it loses its way filling in the sequences around them with tons of plot & character detail that you have seen before—many, many times over—and the whole picture suffers in that contrast.

Its budget is an obvious, constant limitation throughout, but Sound of Violence has Big Ideas that often push its already heightened premise into full-on delirium.  It’s the kind of mixed bag that’s worth wincing through its momentary misfires, since the payoffs are so uniquely deranged.  At its best, it’s a pure sensory horror, combining intense sound editing and mad-scientist visuals to completely overwhelm your sense of basic reality.  At its worst, it feels like a pilot for a primetime CW soap about a hip, young serial killer’s unconventional way of processing #trauma (a hot topic on television these days).  It begins and ends with its weakest moments, but there’s tons of wild shit in-between that you won’t find anywhere else – from a dominatrix-spanking drumbeat to a tender performance of “Amazing Grace” on a theremin.  It’s glaringly imperfect, but it at least it’s playful & eager.  There are plenty of films that are technically better made but don’t take any risks half this interesting.

-Brandon Ledet

Braid (2019)

Braid exhibits both the greatest charms and worst faults of all directorial debuts: it’s tonally chaotic, unnecessarily showy, and overflowing with far too many ideas than what could comfortably fit in a single picture, yet those very qualities all amount to something that is undeniably fun & exciting. Hyperactive camera work tears through every color filter, image texture, and aspect ratio it can manage, as if this were a hand-held skateboarding compilation instead of a feature film. Concerns like logical consistency, tonal control, and purposeful pacing are all tossed out of the window in favor of gorgeous costumes & sets and over-the-top shocks in a twisty “plot” that’s too stoned & scatterbrained to possibly land anywhere solid. It’s the best kind of dirt-cheap indie production: the kind that just shoots a few fully-committed actors in an interesting locale and attempts to push those resources to their furthest possible limit in every single frame, logic be damned. It’s a total mess, but also a total blast.

Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a wealthy but mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. While in hiding (and searching the home for her cash-stuffed safe), they must play along with the friend’s house rules: Everyone must play; no outsiders allowed; nobody leaves. Their respective roles as Mommy, Doctor, and Daughter in this make-believe heist dynamic sledgehammers away at the border between fantasy & reality, and all three women rapidly backslide into the mania & trauma of young girls at play. As many horror premises as I’ve seen repeated over the years, “What if you had a friend who was still playing House and taking her role very seriously?” is a pretty unique story structure I can’t remember encountering onscreen before. The closest appropriate comparison might be to call the film a Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era, with all the obsessive psychosexuality & fetish for brightly colored fashion that descriptor implies. Given the music video freak-outs, detours into torture porn, and disorienting repetition of the game’s core setup, however, no 1:1 comparison could ever fully cover what transpires here. There’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of all over the place – but it all feels delightfully, excitedly new.

Braid is going to be a huge turnoff for a lot of viewers. Not only is it a chaotic sugar rush that pulls the rug from under you so many times that there’s nowhere left to stand, but it’s also deliberately off-putting in its drama & politics. This is a film where one woman grows up to be a dominatrix because of her traumatic childhood, another spends the majority of her screentime dressed like a fetishized schoolgirl, and the third is supposedly driven mad by her own barren womb’s inability to carry child. I personally didn’t find myself getting too hung up on its more #problematic choices, though, mostly because I didn’t have the time. This is an 80 min whirlwind that spins you around until you’re vomitously dizzy and then chases you down the hallway with a knife. It’s an avalanche of pure candy (as long as you appreciate a certain sinister femme sensibility), and my head was swooning with too many pure-sugar pleasures to take notice of anything bitter: Madeleine Brewer in Grey Gardens drag, dollhouse miniatures with their own dollhouse miniatures nested inside, brightly colored silks & lace (sometimes splattered with gore, when necessary), etc. I don’t have much room left in my head for concerns with plot logic or politics when the other wares on display are this sumptuous, so I mostly just can’t wait to see whatever bonkers monstrosity new-comer Mitzi Peiron delivers next.

-Brandon Ledet

The House with the Laughing Windows (1976)



The House with the Laughing Windows is a 1976 giallo film directed by Pupi Avati, and is the film in that director’s canon that has experienced the greatest visibility outside of Europe. The film follows Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who has been invited to a small village in the Valli di Comacchio area in order to restore a fresco depicting the killing of Saint Sebastian, which is on the rotting wall of a church. The friend who helped him get the job, a conservatory scientist recovering from a breakdown of an undisclosed variety, becomes increasingly paranoid and warns Stefano that the village hides a dark secret, cryptically referring to a house with laughing windows. When this friend is killed before he can reveal the full truth, Stefano starts to wonder if all the threatening phone calls he’s been receiving are more than just pranks.

Stefano learns that the fresco’s original artist, Legnani, was considered to be mad, and the villagers imply that his two sisters were worse; Legnani had a tendency to portray his subjects, like Saint Sebastian, in states of torture, and it is rumored that the Legnani sisters would torture innocent travelers in order to provide their brother with models. Stefano reveals the faces of the two killers in the fresco and matches them to an old photo of the Legnanis, but no one seems interested in helping him except for Coppola (Gianni Cavina), the town drunk who takes him to the place where the Legnanis buried their victims (behind a house painted with large laughing mouths, hence the title). Everyone else treats Stefano’s concerns as unfounded, but events transpire to put him out of his hotel, which eventually lands him in a mostly-abandoned home occupied by Laura, a paralyzed woman who depends upon the assistance of Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), a mentally handicapped man who is also an acolyte at the church where Stefano is working. Eventually, Stefano goes to the police, but they are unable to find the evidence that Coppola previously showed to him.

Dejected, Stefano returns to the house where he is staying, only to discover that his love interest Francesca (Francesca Marciano) has been killed; when he brings the police around, all the evidence is gone. Still later, he discovers that the sisters of Legnani are alive and well and are attempting to bring their dead brother back to life by presenting sacrifices. Stefano barely escapes with his life, but for how long?

There’s a lot to unpack in this film, and I like that the entire village is in on the murders, a la the original Wicker Man or the modern classic Hot Fuzz, although the reason for why the consent to be complicit in the murders requires inspection. As is the case with many gialli from this era, there is a larger cultural context that I am unfamiliar with, and that knowledge may lend itself to a clearer interpretation of the film’s themes; one reviewer of the film refers in his analysis to a metaphorical attempt to transcend the Fascism of Italy’s past, especially in the wake of WWII.

This reading of the film is, no pun intended, foreign to me, and I can’t say that House illustrates this as well as, say, Your Vice is a Locked Room, which explicitly made mention of growing European solidarity and international trade. Still, a film should work in and of itself and succeed or fail on its own merits, and this one mostly succeeds. There is a sense of tension that permeates the proceedings, and the film is smart to open with a long diatribe from Legnani that encapsulates his artistic desires and his madness, as this sets the tone and keeps the maliciousness of the villain(s) in mind even when the scenery is idyllic and serene.

The one sticking point that I keep coming back to is the fact that (spoiler) the Legnani sisters are still alive, and the townsfolk seem content, for no immediately apparent reason, to let them continue their murderous machinations long after their brother has died. The best interpretation I can summon is that the villagers may be trying to cover the sins of the past (just as one of the sisters covers the revealed faces in the fresco with fresh clay to obscure their identity), which works well as a metaphor. The townsfolk cannot expose the current serial killings without revealing that they hid the Legnani’s crimes decades before. The final sequence, in which Stefano rides around the deserted village in a scene reminiscent of High Noon, pounding on doors and begging for help while the villagers ignore him with great difficulty, lends itself to this interpretation. They could stop this from happening, but they won’t, out of fear or guilt. The problem with this is that the villagers do not simply seal themselves off from the world until their past sin of allowing the Legnanis to reign in terror is interred with their bones; instead, they willingly accept newcomers like Stefano and Francesca into their midst with no warning.

The Legnanis terrorize by consent of the terrorized, and while that is an interesting twist on the genre, it doesn’t mix well with the giallo trappings. Overall, it’s a good horror film and deserves more than the modicum of attention that it has at present, but it falls short of greatness.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond