Director: Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury
Stars: Alysson Paradis, Béatrice Dalle, Nathalie Roussel, François-Régis Marchasson
Release date: April 15, 2008 (U.S. DVD)
When you've grown up on horror movies, it becomes difficult for them to truly make you squirm. The good ones will always rattle you, no doubt, but leave you quivering, with your arms tired from repeatedly covering your eyes? That's rare. Recent gross-out movies like The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film want to have that kind of impact, but they're all nastiness and no art. Meaning, their longevity only lasts as long as it takes for the next director to find new, revolting ways to dismember pretty, anonymous faces.
Telling people what happens in the French horror film Inside provokes knee-jerk responses along the lines of, "That just sounds gross." They're not wrong. Superficially, it exists in that same lane with The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film. Inside, co-written and co-directed by first-timers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, is an intense succession of brutal kills, horrifying gore, and bodily harm of the you've-never-seen-this-before variety.
I first saw the film as part of Lincoln Center's "Rendezvous with French Cinema" series in March of 2008, in New York City, after spending months on end reading about its triumphant festival screenings, all of which, naturally, took place at midnight. My screening was in the afternoon, but Inside's visceral force wasn't diminished by the brightness outside. I pride myself on never covering my eyes during horror movies—I've seen it all. Right? Well, I thought I had before Inside. I can vividly remember four moments when I closed my eyelids. Actually covering my face with my hands, though, that only happened once. During the film's big closing number. Which I'm not about to describe and spoil here, but know this much: I've since shown Inside to no less than 10 of my friends, and they've all lost their shit during that sequence, accompanied by comments like, "No, no, they're not really going to show that," and, "Jesus, what the hell are we watching?" I've also screened The Human Centipede for those same friends. Their comments were variations of this sentiment: "Pretty gross, but so damn silly."
No one who sees Inside will ever call it "silly." It's as brutal and unpleasant as horror movies come. The mood begins melancholic, with protagonist Sarah (Alysson Paradis) walking through life in a deep depression, saying very little and smiling never. It's Christmas Eve, and she's rather pregnant—as in, ready to give birth on Christmas Day. But she's also alone, drifting in the wake of a devastating car accident that left her husband dead. Sarah's mother, Louise (Nathalie Roussel) wants to spend Christmas Eve with her, but Sarah's not having it. She just wants to stay home, by herself, in misery. That's how her night starts out, but, before long, there's a knock at her front door. A mysterious woman, dressed in all black (and played with brilliant menace by Béatrice Dalle), wants in. She knows Sarah's name, that she's pregnant. And she's not about to leave the property.
As the rest of the night unfolds, the woman, billed as "La Femme," turns Sarah's life into a living hell, slaughtering anyone who's unlucky enough to enter the house and leaving Sarah herself mangled—sliced, slashed, her face caked in blood. Accumulating such a staggering body count isn't what La Femme set out to accomplish, though. She wants Sarah's baby. Not once the child is born—she wants it now, and she's determined to remove it by any means.
Bustillo and Maury structure Inside as a quasi-anthology, a three-act nightmare comprised of the same characters in three tonally different creepshows. The first third plays like a quiet and subtle exercise in the supernatural; we know La Femme's prowling around Sarah's house, but with her black garb and Dalle's soulless eyes, La Femme takes on a spectral quality. One of the most impressive shots you'll see in any horror movie made since 2003 occurs during this section of Inside, and there's not a drop of blood or a forcible jolt to be had. Sarah's asleep on a couch, Bustillo and Maury's camera fastened tightly on her face. They slowly pull the camera back, showing just how dark everything is behind Sarah in her empty house, but something feels off. The darkness seems to be mobile. The darkness, it turns out, is La Femme, who's suddenly inside the house and who's been hovering behind a slumbering Sarah. How did she get in? Is she even human? It's a genius piece of directorial misdirection that gives the viewer assurance. You're under the control of two inventive and technically proficient directors.
And they're behind-the-camera prowess increases tenfold once the carnage begins. Inside's death scenes operate on a whole other level of audience punishment. Bustillo and Maury maximize every possible means of directorship, punctuating each jabbing of La Femme's knife, or piercing of someone's skin with her rusty and abnormally large scissors, with close-up shots and a pulsating sound design, hypnotizing your ears with a sonic assault that's like Skrillex if he swallowed a bottle full of downers. Inside's second act turns Sarah's home into a chamber of homicide, where genitals are prodded with scissors, throats are slashed, and heads are blown clean off. The film's final third, while no less graphic, is slightly toned down, limiting the action to a one-on-one showdown between Sarah and La Femme, which both subverts everything you're anticipating while also delivering everything you've been hoping for but don't exactly long to see. And in the end, Bustillo and Maury close Inside on an image that's beautifully haunting. Whether one considers it to be a happy or bleak ending is up to the respective viewer, and Bustillo and Maury are bold enough to allow for such individual response.
Inside premiered as part of a new wave of uncompromising French horror cinema, alongside the works of Bustillo and Maury's fellow contemporaries Alexandre Aja (High Tension), Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), Xavier Gens (Frontiere(s)), and David Moreau and Xavier Palud (Them). All three of those contemporaries films are worthy of making this list. High Tension, for its part, sparked the movement and features a 15-minute sequence (with a killer decimating an entire family in their isolated cottage) that's pitch-perfect horror filmmaking, while Martyrs, the most narratively ambitious and abstract of the lot, leaves you reeling from a conclusion that's physically exhausting and mentally traumatizing. But Inside hits the hardest. It's lean—running time: a mere 82 minutes—and sadistically audacious, constantly pushing the viewer to his or her limit and always exceeding his or her expectations.
Hollywood distribution heavyweights Harvey and Bob Weinstein—whose horror roots began by producing the 1981 slasher flick The Burning and boomed with Bob steering Dimension Films into genre supremacy via the Scream franchise—picked up Inside's U.S. rights after its festival run, to release through their straight-to-DVD label Dimension Extreme. The disc hit shelves in mid-April 2008, about a month after I sat it inside Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. I purchased it immediately.
Five-and-a-half years later, I've watched Inside eight or nine times, give or take. The most recent viewing was two weekends ago. The film hasn't lost any of its power. That one scene that made me cover my eyes back in March 2008 prompted the same reaction. And, once again, I was left in awe of what Bustillo and Maury achieved. —Matt Barone