Well, the French have certainly given American filmmakers a run for their money in the torture-porn genre during the last few years. First Alexandre Aja created a hotly debated gore fest with "High Tension" in 2003, and now Xavier Gens serves up the extremely bloody "Frontier(s)." Originally an entry in the 2008 After Dark Horrorfest, "Frontier(s)" was apparently scrapped after the MPAA slapped it with an NC-17 rating, and it eventually received its own limited theatrical release in early May. Paying homage to (or ripping off, depending on your perspective) splatter films both past and present, Gens' opus is relentless in its brutality and stylish in its visual presentation.
The film begins in Paris, where riots break out after the election of a right-wing interior minister. A group of young rebels head out of the city to escape the police after one of them is shot. Two of the rebels, Yasmine and Alex (Karina Testa and Aurélien Wiik), stop to take her dying brother to the hospital, but they make a hasty escape when the doctors notify the police, leaving her brother to die. Meanwhile, Tom and Farid (David Saracino and Chems Dahmani) stop at an isolated, family-owned hostel for the night. The attractive, female proprietors eagerly provide them with sexual services, but things turn nasty when they invite the guests to a particularly uncomfortable family dinner. When Tom and Farid insult the women, their older brother, Karl (Patrick Ligardes), pulls a gun on them and shoots Tom. The young men manage to get to their car and drive away, only to be followed and knocked into an old mine pit. Later, Yasmine and Alex show up at the hostel to find them, but they soon discover that the family running the place are actually cannibalistic neo-Nazis who use their business to procure fresh human meat and to lure young women into their clan to preserve their pure race. Yasmine becomes the desired bride for Karl when the family discovers that she is pregnant, while her friends do what they can to avoid becoming dinner. Anyone familiar with these kinds of films knows how that will turn out.
There are clear echoes of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in almost every scene of this film, from the cannibalism to the overbearing patriarch to the use of ambient pig squealing on the soundtrack. There is not one but two bizarre dinner sequences, including the aforementioned one, and Gens gives us more characters to deal with, including a child-like girl (Maud Forget) who was brought into the family to bear children, although all of them were born with "problems" (these "problems" are one of the film's more ambiguous elements). But where "Frontier(s)" really distinguishes itself from its 1970s predecessor is in its level of graphic violence. Where "Chainsaw" memorably left the carnage off screen, Gens follows the lead of contemporary gore masters by presenting everything in as vivid detail as possible. The common horror theme of the human body as meat is displayed in full, literal force in an inventive twist on the older film's meat hook image. In one violent scene after another, the young protagonists are reduced to animalistic status - chained up, crawling through mud, and subjected to all manner of sadistic torture.
Unlike the "Saw" movies, which seem chiefly concerned with displaying ever more creative and intricate forms of mutilation, this movie goes for the hard-edged, gritty violence of 1970s grindhouse movies. There is nothing pretty about the gore here, and the overall look of the film is grimy and putrid. The MPAA's NC-17 threat is definitely understandable. Streams of gushing blood, a melting face, and one very nasty scene involving someone's Achilles tendons consistently push the boundaries of mainstream violence. Happily, Gens allows for some moments of genuine suspense between the gore, particularly a scene in which Tom and Farid try to make their way out of a dark tunnel. Most of the action takes place in dimly lit locations, and the darkness enhances the dreadful mood. The action is fueled well by the performances. In general, the acting is quite good. The only setback is that the young heroes are decidedly too attractive to be taken seriously. Their good looks make it hard to forget that they are actors and not Parisian rebels.
Where the movie falters significantly is in its story. What starts out as fairly believable, if implausible, becomes more and more ridiculous as the true intentions of the family are revealed. The horror turns into a kind of carnival grotesquerie, particularly with the child-mother who wears a lacy dress over her pregnant figure and ribbons in her hair. At the beginning of the film, Yasmine speaks in voiceover directly to the audience about her pregnancy, saying that she is going to spare her child the sufferings of the world. However, the prospect of abortion is never mentioned again, making her opening monologue confusing and seemingly pointless.
The film's biggest flaw, however, is in its political overtones. Much is made of the political chaos over the election of a right-wing minister at the beginning of the film. One of the young characters remarks that France now has its own George Bush. The parallel between the "Fascist country" and the neo-Nazis is clear, but beyond this rather broad observation, Xavier Gens doesn't really seem to have much to say about it. The final scene makes the connection more blatantly clear, but the film's political agenda seems like more of an afterthought than a central issue.
Released by Lions Gate, the film looks very good on DVD. The image is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. As stated earlier, much of the film takes place in darkness, and black levels are appropriately strong. The look of the film is intentionally muted and soft. The image is not extremely sharp, but I am guessing this is also part of the film's inherent appearance.
Audio is presented in its original French in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks. The 5.1 track is utilized well in the action sequences, nicely distributing the heightened sound effects through the front and back speakers. Dialogue and music are always presented clearly. There is no English-dubbed track (I'm glad), but English and Spanish subtitles are available. No complaints in this department.
Unfortunately, Lions Gate released this film with no supplemental materials whatsoever. At the very least, I would have appreciated some background information on the film's removal from the After Dark Horrorfest (the DVD packaging still bears the Horrorfest logo). But there is absolutely nothing here, not even a trailer.
In spite of its narrative shortcomings, "Frontier(s)" delivers on its intent. While it doesn't always make much sense, the sheer audacity of the story gives it a kind of kitschy appeal. But make no mistake; this film takes itself very seriously. And why not? When you come right down to it, it basically meets expectations. It is intense and bloody, sufficiently gross, and intriguingly odd. It fails when it tries to be anything other than what it really is. As a political allegory, it has no substance. As a genre piece, it is derivative, but it takes from the best and brings it together reasonably well.