Written and Directed by: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Starring: Anne Marivin, Théo Fernandez, and Francis Renaud
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Some secrets shouldn't be uncovered.
Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo have had the most frustrating career arc imaginable. After slashing their way onto the scene with the brutal, unforgettable Inside, the French New Extremity pioneers were poised to become horror’s Next Big Thing, with their names often being floated for big Stateside projects like Halloween II and the ever elusive Hellraiser reboot. None of these ever came to fruition, leaving the duo to continue churning out savage efforts like Livide and Among the Living, two films that have been collecting dust on the shelf since their completion. In other words, Maury and Bustillo are quite possibly the best filmmakers whose films are far too difficult to see. Thankfully, Shudder has taken it upon itself to finally free Among the Living from distribution purgatory—though it might be more apt to say they’ve unleashed since it’s an unrelentingly vicious slasher movie update.
Dwelling alongside its truly stomach-churning predecessors, it opens on a Halloween night full of more tricks than treats. The image of costumed children going door-to-door caters to an audience expecting the usual confectionary slasher fare, but it’s a disarming tactic once it’s revealed that one house is full of genuine squalor and horrors. A soldier suffering from PTSD and his very pregnant wife have no time for All Hallows Eve revelry, as they’re too consumed by an ominous argument about their unseen son, who apparently suffers from kind of genetic disorder. Vowing to not allow history to repeat itself with her unborn child, the woman stabs the fetus to death before slashing her own throat. Her horrified husband naturally takes his deformed child and flees the scene, insisting they’ll relocate to somewhere off the grid and disappear.
That proves to be solid plan for a few years, as the father and son hole up in an abandoned film lot, virtually unknown to the world except for those poor, unfortunate souls they abduct. One day, however, a trio of 13-year-old hooligans stumble onto the place, uncovering the grisly horrors in the process. Luckily, they do manage to escape, although the local authorities don’t believe their wild stories. Still, the maniacal father doesn’t want to take any chances and dispatches his mutant son to butcher the boys in their homes.
Loglines don’t really come more twisted than “mutant man-child preys upon 13-year-old kids and their families,” and Among the Living revels in that queasiness. Anytime a horror movie prominently features children in peril, the question of whether it’ll actually go there lingers about, even though most of the time, you feel pretty safe that it won’t. Among the Living doesn’t afford the luxury of such comforts, as it dwells around that particular threat. Movies that off a fetus within minutes tend do that, I guess, and as schlocky and distasteful as that may seem, it certainly indicates that Maury and Bustillo aren’t fucking around.
As such, one of the best compliments I can make about Among the Living is that it’s an effective slasher even though it doesn’t spill much blood at all for over half its runtime. After that shocking opening scene, the film settles into an almost playfully suspenseful mode. You watch as these boys piss around on the last day of school, eventually ditching detention to terrorize a local old coot by burning down his barn. When the grizzled man appears behind them brandishing farm implements, you’re sure they’re about to get it, only to watch them escape to the abandoned film lot. Surely, this is where they’ll pay for their sins of being little dipshits—after all, you don’t just waltz into a psycho’s den and escape unscathed.
Except they do, of course, and the entire ordeal just grows more harrowing and unsettling as it unfolds. The locations grow increasingly ominous, as Maury and Bustillo’s camera roves through beautiful rural locations, extracting the menace from the sun-soaked backcountry and the ghost town film backlot. The latter houses a grungy freakshow that could easily serve as the setting for the rest of the movie, but Maury and Bustillo are more preoccupied with twisting the boys’ homes into the stuff of moonlit, gothic horror tales the boys might read in the ghastly comic books that earn them rebukes throughout the film. It’s here that Among the Living finds its speed, unfolding as a restrained, suspenseful stalk-and-slash exercise full of prowling camera moves, suspicious noises, and one very unnerving clown mask.
One sequence in particular is a masterfully unsettling bit that finds the mutant psycho toying with one of the boys and his babysitter before finally doing them in. The prolonged quality to it only heightens the inevitability, as it feels like these characters have already cheated death enough. This time, death has come in the place these kids should feel most secure, and there’s a perverse, invasive quality to it. Even though these little pyromaniac hoodlums kind of suck, we spend enough time with them to learn that it’s typical teen boy posturing, at least in the sense that they all seem to behave this way to impress each other. Alone, they’re pretty nice kids, with two belonging to stable homes and loving families, while the other is stuck in an abusive situation that just augments the film’s scummy quality.
To be sure, none of them deserve to have such horrors visited upon them, and you’re almost grateful that Bustillo and Maury forego the trashy slasher thrill by cutting away from the actual bloodletting, at least initially. Among the Living doesn’t need to revel in gore to feel grimy since it feels so thoroughly unhinged. The sight of a naked, malformed albino stalking through a family’s home conjures up the childhood fear of a monster lurking under the bed—only this time, it’s actually there and is threatening to abduct your little sister or stuff a baby into the washing machine. And considering these directors have made careers out of pulling no punches, an uneasy feeling settles in that no one is really safe. Not only will they go there, but they’ve already been there.
Bustillo and Maury are the rare filmmakers that can pull this sort of thing off without it feeling like empty provocation, even if they eventually do turn to overt, gory shocks. Even this is done skillfully and with an eye trained towards escalation, as the on-screen viscera gradually increases until spilling over during a deranged climax. If you feel like the film might miss a trick by ditching the abandoned film lot early on, you’ll be pleased to know Bustillo and Maury return here to unleash a gore-soaked finale, complete with an incredible gag I’ve never seen before. If Among the Living could only boast that, it’d be an easy recommendation to slasher heads looking for a new fix of blood and guts.
But thankfully, it definitely has more going for it than that. While it isn’t flawless (that late turn towards over-the-top gore and a wry ending are a bit tonally discordant with the rest), Among the Living reveals what the slasher genre is capable of when it’s in the right hands. Between this and the previous work, it’s clear that Bustillo and Maury are the sort of filmmakers who can have their cake and eat it too by couching schlock in a genuinely unsettling atmosphere. Among the Living hits the gut in a way that’s rare for this sub-genre—there’s actual weight and consequences to the hack-and-slash since the characters are so well-sketched and performed. That said, Bustillo and Maury aren’t the least bit afraid to slice someone’s face off, either, and the grisly interiors of the psycho family’s abode here hint that they were perfect candidates to helm the long-awaited Leatherface prequel that will finally see release later this fall.
Unsurprisingly, that production has been dogged by rumors of an unhappy studio that demanded reshoots, so who knows if we’ll ever see Bustillo and Maury’s original intent with that film. That these two are still being doubted after a decade of indelible hellraising is a shame, and Among the Living’s greatness makes it all the more frustrating.
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