Saturday, March 17, 2007

SHEITAN (Review)

As if to forewarn the audience of the wild ride that is about to begin, a DJ at the Styxx Club asks if I am ready. Ignorant of all that is to come, I say, “Hell, yeah!”
Poor, stupid fool.

With Christmas Eve right around the corner, a group of clubbers finds trouble at the Styxx, where Bart (Olivier Bartelemy) gets a bottle broken on his head. Leaving the club behind, they travel to the country home of Eve (Roxane Mesquida), where they meet backwoods yokel and housekeeper Joseph (Vincent Cassel, one of France’s busiest actors, whose face I became familiar with from films like Christophe Gans’ Le Pacte des LoupsBrotherhood of the Wolf—and Les Rivieres PourpresThe Crimson Rivers). It isn’t long before they meet some curiously inbred-looking villagers, and experience a number of unsettling situations.
What gradually becomes clear is that all is not right out here in the French countryside.

Now, if it’s one thing the French can do, it’s to serve up some pretty disturbing, effed-up horror movies. From Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension to Fabrice Du Welz’s Calvaire, I have come to be very wary of France; if these films are anything to go by, France is one country I am never stepping foot in.*
Sheitan follows in that fine, anti-tourism vein.

Though it is a variation of the young pretty things-in-peril fright flick, Sheitan succeeds in making the idea of being stalked by some mad cannibalistic killer with a chainsaw seem like a Disney movie. Recent Hollywood offerings like The Hitcher or House of Wax or the Texas Chainsaw movies? Wussy.
And Sheitan isn’t in the Hostel or Saw mode, either; what some industry observers have come to term as “torture porn.” Sheitan takes the horror beyond the visceral, getting underneath your skin without the fixation on the blood and gore.

Kim Chapiron (who also directed both Cassel and Bartelemy in his short film La Barbichette) sets up a situation that is truly disturbing, painting a world seething with insanity and chaos, a world where God is deaf and blind. And although this is the general aetheistic attitude the average horror film cops anyway, there is actually a crucial dining table discussion in Sheitan which serves as a cornerstone of the film’s portrayal of an indifferent deity.

And can we really blame Him? After all, we watch a group of youngsters (some of them espousing a deep faith in their chosen god) cheat and steal and have wanton sex. General horniness, in fact, seems to be the major motivational factor which drives them, which muddles their judgment, making them easier prey.
Two telling points towards the film’s end bolster the God-in-absentia idea: the direct plea which goes unanswered, and the end result of the perhaps one true selfless act in the entire movie. (And keep in mind, this is happening just as Christmas comes around, a temporal setting incidentally shared by Calvaire.)

If there is any suprahuman force active in Sheitan, it’s the one the film is named for. Note though that there is no actual physical presence of the demonic or the supernatural which appears onscreen, no rotating heads or pea soup vomit. (Unless you consider Cassel wearing a set of fake bad teeth—and other head gear—demonic.) There are, however, motifs: from the Styxx Club, to a dog called “Cerberus,” to a tale told by Joseph, to a ghastly birth on Christmas. (Also, please note Joseph’s wife’s name…)

Sheitan is a cinematic experience that is by turns absurd and unsettling, and is the sort of movie that stays with you in a way that the majority of Hollywood’s horror doesn’t. There are some images that will sear themselves indelibly on your mind’s eye, so be warned. (The family portrait at film’s end is one of the most disturbing images in the entire movie.)

So if your idea of horror is the watered-down Hollywood PG-13 variety, or the measured quiet creep of long-haired female contortionist ghosts, you’d best be advised to stay as far away from Sheitan as you can. If you are, however, open to the experience of being unsettled by your horror, then Christmas dinner with Sheitan could be just the ticket.

* And Belgium too, as Calvaire is a Belgian horror movie. (Not France, yes, but it is right next to France, so… Let’s change that to “I am never stepping foot in France and its surrounding areas.”)

(Originally posted 021807)

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