Friday, June 5, 2015

Of Course, Of Course: "Horsehead" (2015)

Despite some convenient plot points, Romain Basset's feature film debut is an astounding visual nightmare.

University student Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) is called home after her grandmother dies suddenly. Jessica has a cold-as-ice relationship with her mother (genre veteran Catriona MacColl), and gets along much better with her milquetoast stepfather Jim (Murray Head) and the handyman George (Vernon Dobtcheff). Lucky for you and I, and the screenwriters, Jessica studies the psychology of dreams and believes that what we dream at night can tell us a lot about our subconscious. When Jessica arrives at the house, she finds out her grandmother's body is still laying in the bedroom next door, and then the weird dreams begin.

Jessica dreams of her grandmother Rose as a much younger woman (Gala Besson), as well as a mysterious clawed figure who carries a circular sickle and has the head of a horse. Jessica comes down with an awful flu, giving her dreams that lovely feverish quality we all have had, and she begins inhaling ether in order to sleep more. The dream world begins crossing over into Jessica's reality, and huge family secrets begin to emerge.

As with his short films, Basset shows great judgement choosing his cinematographer. Vincent Vieillard-Baron's lighting is a masterwork, using simple contraptions and colors. Change in mood and lighting tell the viewer when Jessica is dreaming, and Basset doesn't go for the cheap "this is a dream...OR IS IT?" jump scare. Benjamin Shielden's musical score sets the mood very well. Basset and his co-screenwriter come up with many disturbing images, many of them uncomfortable (lesbian incest) and downright gory and frightening. There is an anti-Christian element, too, that might make some cringe. The "Horsehead" of the title is a striking figure, exhaling smoke and frightening character and viewer alike. This isn't a slasher movie, but not a cerebral horror film wrapped up in its own importance, either. There were two shoots put into the film, separated by a few months, but I did not notice any difference in scenes onscreen.

The cast is great, and Pointeaux is both beautiful and effective as Jessica. Her strained relationship with her mother is played out very well between the two actresses. MacColl and Head make for a believable couple, and Philippe Nahon has a good scene as a local priest. I wish more had been explained about some of the plot points, and having a student of dream psychology get to enter such a nightmarish environment seems a little too coincidental, but the script doesn't let up once it gets going, and some of the twists did surprise me.

"Horsehead" is a feast for the senses, every frame gives your eyes something to behold. Artsploitation Films keeps raiding foreign and domestic markets for some incredible filmmaking (try this on a double bill with "Der Samurai"), and I hope this winning streak continues. (* * * * *) out of five stars.