There’s a moment in The Pack, Franck Richard’s new French horror film (now available on Video On Demand), that tells you everything you need to know about the movie. The heroine, Emilie Duquenne, has been kidnapped by French small-town types and is subjected horrific tortures. High Tension’s Philippe Nahon plays a retired sheriff who, like Scatman Crothers before him, seems destined to figure out what’s going on and come to her rescue. But he doesn’t hear her screams because he’s too busy stuffing breadsticks into his ears. And up his nostrils. The Pack in no way reinvents the horror genres it mines for content, but sometimes it pulls a droll, appreciated switcheroo. It’s better than this kind of thing usually gets, at least.
Duquenne plays Charlotte, a woman who has packed all of her things into a dreary station wagon and is determined to drive across the French countryside until she’s listened to all the CDs she owns. We never find out what she’s running from, but a photograph with a significant other torn conspicuously out tells us what we need to know. She has “HATE” tattooed across her fingers, on both hands. But she’s neither a jilted lover nor a non-descript tough girl. She picks up a hitchhiker named Max (Benjamin Biolay) to discourage a biker gang from accosting her, smartly justifying an otherwise daft decision, and together they make a pit stop at a small, out of the way diner. As they approach, a woman wrapped in plastic runs out in front of them and straight into a wall, knocking herself unconscious. They go inside anyway. You’d think that would be a red flag.
But no, Charlotte’s ears only perk up when Max goes to the bathroom, and never comes out. The large, matronly owner of the establishment (Amelie’s Yolande Moreau) claims never to have seen him. In what we suspect is an uncharacteristically good deed, Charlotte goes snooping for the truth and winds up kidnapped, tortured, force fed God only knows what kind of black substance and ultimately offered to a pack of horrific subterranean ghouls. It’s like Franck Richards took the standard American tale of young, attractive people suffering at the hands of backwoods yokels and didn’t want to screw with it too much, but did occasionally get bored and throw in breadsticks, monsters and openly bisexual biker thugs. The result is consistently entertaining right up until an ending that doesn’t make a lick of sense, and requires one of the protagonists to act entirely out of character.
And yet despite that unfortunate climax (and be honest, who hasn’t had a few of those), Franck Richards knows how to tell a story. The suspense is palpable and the comedy hits his mark. And the horror is present in every shot: each frame of the film feels uncomfortably moist, and not just from the gore, giving The Pack a memorable, almost tactile feel. And Duquenne in particular is an atypically strong horror heroine, who makes sympathetic, intelligent decisions throughout the film and earns genuine rooting interest when the likes of Jessica Biel would try to scoot by on mere victimization and boob size. She’s a horror heroine, emphasis on “hero,” and she earns your respect. Yolande Moreau also plays ably against type as a delightful, down to earth mother figure (well, I guess that is her type) and a powerful homicidal monster (alright, that’s different).
We often look to foreign lands to bring something fresh and unexpected to filmmaking, at least from an American perspective, and The Pack doesn’t quite satisfy from that perspective. At its heart it’s an American movie with a more bemused (read: French) sensibility, and as such it’ll probably go down smooth to horror fans on this side of the pond. But it’s not much beyond a genre curio. You’ll probably like it anyway.
CRAVEONLINE RATING: 7/10