The "New French Extremity" filmmaking style has been taking both Europe and the US by storm. The term refers primarily to French horror films made in the early 2000s, known for extreme violence, unflinching excess, visceral visuals, and a transgressive approach to cinema. They're also a bit of an acquired taste; a viewer with no prior knowledge of this style of filmmaking could easily be put off by their ultraviolent nature. But with a little exposure, the films within can be very enjoyable; they take no prisoners and definitely make a statement. Since French Extremity films are not as well known in the States, we've selected five titles which every horror fan should see.
In Them, we find a schoolteacher and her lover tormented by a group of baddies that will not let up under any circumstances. This film was reportedly a huge inspiration for the American film The Strangers; it’s even been said that The Strangers is somewhat of a loose remake. Them is easily the tamest film on the list; there isn’t an outrageous amount of bloodshed, but the extremity is still there. The story itself, however, is extremely brutal, and the film is mentally taxing, pushing the concepts it explores to the extreme. It’s the first pick on this list because it's a proper introduction to the genre's aesthetic without being so outrageous as to keep more sensitive viewers from exploring other titles within the movement.
The Ordeal (Calvaire)
A musician’s van breaks down while he is on his way to a performance. All he wants is to find an inn, but we know things are never that easy in this sort of movie. The man is in for a real treat when things start to unfold in The Ordeal, which is full of blood, destruction, and forced captivity. It fits perfectly under the French Extremity banner, as it It certainly takes things to the extreme. As a result, a couple parts of the film may be a little hard to watch, but don't worry... it builds character. It’s also tamer than the titles that come after it on this list (making it good practice for what’s to come), and the exchanges between the captive and the tormentors are a little hilarious at times.
High Tension (Haute Tension)
After you’ve seen Them and The Ordeal, this is a good follow-up pick. The aptly-titled High Tension follows two girls travelling to one's family home in the country to study for the weekend. They get more than they were expecting when a psychotic creep interrupts their quiet weekend with murderous shenanigans, triggering all the requisite ultra-violent imagery one would expect from a French Extremity film. When I saw High Tension in the theatre, I was glued to my seat for the entire run time. It kicks into high gear about fifteen minutes in and it just doesn’t stop until the credits roll. High Tension is also the most commercially successful of this subgenre, and paved the way for director Alexandre Aja's Hollywood career.
This tale of a pregnant woman stalked by a mysterious stranger who desperately wants her baby is one of the finest horror films to come out in some time. Inside is a phenomenal picture, and functions as more than just a horror feature; it's also a highly suspenseful edge-of-your-seat thriller. The first time I watched it, I was so enthralled I couldn’t believe it was over when the credits rolled. The musical cues, the lighting, the direction, and the performances all work together to provide viewers with an unforgettable experience. Inside is the type of movie you will probably never be able to forget: it's constantly throwing a different feeling, dilemma or emotion at the viewer. By the time it was over, I almost felt like I’d had a workout just from watching it. There's also enough violence to satisfy the gorehound in all of us. If you survive this film, then you will be ready for our final entry...
Martyrs is the final title on this list for a reason. Of course it's a must-see, but it’s also helpful for the viewer to have an understanding of French Extremity beforehand. There is a great deal of violence in Martyrs, and the whole film is fairly surreal. The first time I saw it, it seemed like an excessively bloody revenge dream. The violence does complement the story, but there are several scenes where the gore is dialed up a little more than was absolutely necessary. However, Martyrs wouldn’t have had the same impact without the excess... and the impact it made was huge. This is the type of movie that, if I'd seen it when I first fell in love with horror films, I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much as I do now. It's an exceptional specimen of filmmaking, and must be seen by any dedicated horror fan.
Once you’ve taken in the films on the list, there is much more to explore... and there are films out there even more extreme than those listed here. This list should provide a good foundation for anyone who wants to seek out films like Irreversible or Rape Me (Baise-Moi), though extreme caution should be exercised on behalf of any viewer who plans to watch either of those.