With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding a prestigious Hollywood event, you probably wouldn’t expect a glittering affair like the Cannes Film Festival to include hard-hitting horror films. Cannes is where Hollywood finds a steady stream of award-worthy and award-baiting movies, right? The heavy, boring, historical drama stuff, right?
That’s true. Cannes is prestigious for a reason. Every year, the festival showcases emerging talents alongside master filmmakers, and many of those films are either good enough or earn enough hype to be marketed as highbrow cinema.
But it’s also true that Cannes has a deep commitment to varied viewpoints. The festival loves innovation. It pays tribute to films from different countries, different voices, and different genres, including horror.
Horror has always been a part of Cannes. In 2015 and 2014, respectively, Green Room and It Follows were screened and received great acclaim. Other major horror titles screened at Cannes include 2012’s remake of Maniac, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, even the horrifying Martyrs debuted at Cannes. Horror classics Kwaidan and Evil Dead were both screened to enthusiastic audiences at Cannes. And Park Chan-wook’s 2003 tour-de-force Oldboy won the Grand Prix, the second-most prestigious award given at Cannes.
This year, the Cannes Film Festival lasted from May 11 to May 22. During that time, six horror films caught the attention of audiences, critics, and distributors. I’ve laid them out below, complete with synopses, trailers (if I could find them), a summary of reviews, and my own thoughts regarding each film. Think of it as a your guide to horror at Cannes.
***Quick Note: The Cannes Film Festival has various sections where different prizes are awarded. The main section is the “In Competition” section, which consists of 20 or so films competing for the incredibly prestigious Palme D’or. It’s the main event, so to speak, and a lot of these films go on to garner tons of awards and critical acclaim. After that is “Out of Competition”, which belongs to films that typically have more name recognition and commercial appeal than those films included in the Competition category. Next up is “Un Certain Regard,” which again consists of around 20 films that, while not as glamorous or “high art”, are bold and distinctive enough to merit attention. “International Critics’ Week” is separate from the main festival and consists of 14 films directed by rising filmmakers, all selected by a panel of international critics.***
Without further adieu, here are the horror films that made a splash at Cannes this year. Enjoy!
- The Neon Demon
Synopsis: “When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.”
Festival highlight: The film and its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, was the most enthusiastically booed film at Cannes this year, which is something of a badge of honor. Films get booed at Cannes all the time, regardless of the quality. Honestly, boos say more about the audience’s expectations for the film more than anything. Hell, Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction were booed at Cannes. Not that Neon Demon is on the same level of either of those films.
General Consensus: Mixed. This film is damn pretty and incredibly surreal. So surreal, in fact, that it doesn’t make much sense. Variety called it a “baroquely kinky gross-out” and kept making references to eyeballs…which…intrigues me at the very least. The Guardian echoed many of the same sentiments, deriding the film for lack of focus and substance. However, The Guardian also praised how slick the film was, all stunning and outrageous imagery with heavy doses of Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho). The Hollywood Reporter was less than impressed, calling it vapid and boring but stylish. On the other hand, The Telegraph loved it, declaring that it was “work of zero artistic compromise – a glittering, etherised nightmare, drenched in cold sweat, with a dark, coiled-panther energy that springs at you in fitful, snarling bursts.”
But everyone seems to agree that Elle Fanning is fantastic in the film.
I don’t care. I love pretty horror. Even if this bad, I’ll enjoy the visuals at least. It reminds me of Suspiria and Italian giallo horror films, which are some of my favorites.
The Neon Demon will be released in the U.S. on June 24, 2016. I’ll be there opening day!
2. Personal Shopper
Synopsis: “Maureen, mid-20s, has a job she hates: seeing to the wardrobe of a media celebrity. She couldn’t find anything better to pay for her stay in Paris. And wait. Wait for a sign from the spirit of her twin brother, who died a few months earlier. Until then, her life will stay on hold.”
Favorite Festival Moment: The film actually has two favorite moments for me–the first for when it was booed and the second for when it then received a five-minute standing ovation. And then director Olivier Assayas tied with Graduation director Cristian Mungiu for Best Director.
General Consensus: Again, reviews were somewhat mixed for this film, though it seems like critics and audiences liked this film better than The Neon Demon. Variety called it a “never boring mix of spine-tingling horror story, dreary workplace drama and elliptical identity search.” Variety also pointed out how unconventional the film is, and while fans of traditional bloody slashers might be disappointed, other horror fans would enjoy how the film is more interested in “subtext and psychology than the computer-generated ghost that surfaces in the movie’s scarier scenes.” But The Hollywood Reporter kind of hated the film, calling it’s screenplay so “vapid” and underdeveloped” that Kristen Stewart’s performance couldn’t save it. And Richard Lawson over at Vanity Fair might need a hug after seeing this film, which he found to be “strange, frightening, and possessed of a dark ribbon of sadness hat no champagne gulped down at a post-screening beach party could drown out.”
I’m interested in Personal Shopper, though it looks a little bit slow, even for my tastes. Also, I guess Kristen Stewart is a good actress now? She’s come a long way since her acting consisted of biting her lower lip and darting her eyes back and forth in the Twilight series.
IFC Films holds the distribution rights, though there aren’t any plans for a release just yet.
OUT OF COMPETITION
- The Wailing
Synopsis: “An old stranger appears in a peaceful rural village, but no one knows when or why. As mysterious rumors begin to spread about this man, the villagers drop dead one by one. They grotesquely kill each other for inexplicable reasons. The village is swept by turmoil and the stranger is subjected to suspicion.”
General Consensus: Reviews have been generally positive, though some reviews noted that the first act dragged a bit and the screenplay should have been tighter. The Hollywood Reporter, who seemed unimpressed with the previous entries, called The Wailing “darkly unsettling,” and “flamboyent.” Indiewire declared that the film is an “unwieldly epic” that nevertheless possesses “all the tenets and tropes of a traditional horror movie, but it doesn’t bend them to the same, stifling ends that define Hollywood’s recent contributions to the genre.” Honestly, that’s reason enough to see this film. And then there’s Screen Daily, a publication so impressed with the film that critic Jason Bechervaise thinks it might be one of the best Korean films in recent years.
I’m woefully ignorant of K-Horror, something I’ve been meaning to remedy for a while. With all the positive word-of-mouth this film has garnered in South Korea and will be sure to garner abroad, I don’t think I can go wrong with this film.
The Wailing will be released in the US on June 3, 2016.
2. Train to Busan
Synopsis: “As an unidentified virus sweeps the country, Korean government declares martial law. Those on an express train to Busan, a city that has successfully fended off the viral outbreak, must fight for their own survival…”
So…Snowpiercer…but with zombies? Yes please!
General Consensus: Train to Busan has been praised for its inventive use of its claustrophobic setting to ramp up tension and drive the plot. It boldly confronts social and political themes. However, the individual roles leave a lot to be desired. Twitchfilm called it “a well-executed disaster film that presents enough new ideas to keep things from getting stale” but noted that the film is full of flat stock characters. Variety appreciated how the film created “genuine shocks rather than false jolts” but lamented that the screenplay becomes contrived and sappy towards the end. The Hollywood Reporter noted how similar Train to Busan was to classic zombie films like Dawn of the Dead, making full use of conflict in a confined space to thrill, horrify, and examine social ills.
I’m kind of stoked for this movie! I enjoyed Snowpiercer, flaws and all. I love zombie movies, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a South Korean zombie film. American zombies movies might be completely played out right now, but I’m intrigued by the unique insight a South Korean filmmaker could bring to the genre.
UN CERTAIN REGARD
- The Transfiguration
Synopsis: “Queens, New York…. 14 year-old Milo is an outsider. Orphaned, ignored by his schoolmates and bullied by older kids, he takes refuge in the apartment he shares with his older brother. To escape his solitude, he immerses himself in the world of the vampire. Milo hides a dark secret, but a chance encounter with a new neighbor Sophie leads him to develop new feelings. But is this enough to quash his dark urges?”
(Note: I couldn’t find a trailer for this film, but I did find this teaser.)
General Consensus: Don’t expect a charmingly vicious vampire or countless bloodbaths from The Transfiguration–it’s a slow burn, artsy vampire flick that references classics of the subgenre but fails to leave its own mark. Variety appreciated that protagonist Milo’s particular brand of vampirism explores mental illness and psychological anguish. But The Transfiguration relies a bit too much on atmosphere and neglects its substance. The Hollywood Reporter went so far as to call it an “anti-horror film” more interested in how the sad, lonely characters navigate a world of race and class divisions, escaping into the violence of their private lives. SciFiNow lauded the film’s exploration of loneliness, but felt that first-time director Michael O’Shea took on too much. He needed a more steady hand to draw out more compelling performances and give the film the focus it desperately needed.
Well, this doesn’t seem to be the vampire flick I had hoped for. And it’s been a long time since we’ve had a good vampire horror film.
Props to the filmmakers for taking risks with such a film, because Lord knows risks are better than playing it safe. But from what I gather, the film spends a lot of time referencing vampire films that outshine The Transfiguration. Films like Nosferatu, Martin, Near Dark, and Let The Right One In. It seems like it would be a better use of time to watch those films instead of this one.
INTERNATIONAL CRITICS’ WEEK
(I’m probably most excited about this one!!!)
Synopsis: “In Justine’s family everyone is a vet and a vegetarian. At 16, she’s a gifted teen ready to take on her first year in vet school, where her older sister also studies. There, she gets no time to settle: hazing starts right away. Justine is forced to eat raw meat for the first time in her life. Unexpected consequences present themselves as her true self emerges.”
(Again, I couldn’t find a trailer for this film, so here are two clips.)
General Consensus: This film is awesome! It’s solidly written, horrifying, with amazing practical effects and a killer performance from leading lady Garance Marillier. Variety assured horror fans that they would love the film, noting that Raw ” is a deliciously fevered stew of nightmare fuel that hangs together with a breezily confident sense of superior craft.” The Hollywood Reporter seemed to love it as well, describing it as “Cannibal Holocaust as an emotionally driven coming-of-age movie set within a Gallic veterinarian college” complete with “some of the goriest makeup effects this side of Rob Zombie.” And Indiewire declared that Raw “is a surreal, deliriously twisted coming-of-age story” that swings between “beautiful and grotesque.” Time and time again the film was compared to Suspiria, Ginger Snaps, Trouble Every Day, We Are What We Are, and Carrie.
Why are the French so good at making horror films? Really gory horror films? Which I love despite my aversion to such bloody fare? I don’t appreciate it, France. I really don’t.
Just kidding! I love you, France. I love your delightfully demented filmmaking. I love how it makes me squirm and how it scares me. I can’t wait to see Raw. While there aren’t any plans for a US release yet, I’ll be keeping an eye out for this one.