Until the recent post-millennial explosion of New Extremity cinema one might be forgiven for failing to associate the French cinema with the horror genre. Given that Halloween is upon us I thought it worthy of recommending a couple of classic French movies that stand as classics of the genre, and make for solid alternative viewing choices for over the Halloween season.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques is perhaps the most iconic French horror movie of all. Made in 1955, and based on a novel by Vertigo writers Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, Les Diaboliques is a masterclass in the execution of tension and suspense, and fuses a stylistic, near-gothic expressionist visuals with an approach to storytelling that borders on the commercial Hollywood. I’ve never seen a reveal as tense as that which comes at the end of the film.
Boileau and Ayraud would also collaborate on another iconic French horror movie, 1960s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without A Face). Directed by Georges Franju, Les yeux sans visage is a precursor to the kind of body horror pictures that would sweep through North America in the second half of the twentieth century, courtesy of filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and Clive Barker. There’s an elegance to proceedings here that helps to distract from the genre tendencies, lulling one in to a false sense of security regarding the level of respectability of the film being consumed. It doesn’t have the feel of an exploitation picture, or a gore movie, and for this the ultimate effect is all the more powerful. Edith Scob’s turn as the affected young woman at the centre of the film is one that has gone down in horror movie history, and for good reason. The mere sight of the character’s uneasy appearance is enough to provoke the strongest sense of unease and discomfort.