DVD The Pack
French horror has been enjoying itself of late, and the off-shoot of rural horror has had great success. Haute Tension (2003) showed that the French countryside was full of more than just pleasant vineyards and farms. Since then there have been a number of releases that combine extreme violence and gore with a wider message, sometimes political (Frontiers), sometimes philosophical (Martyrs), and sometimes simply to scare and shock (Inside, Sheitan). With The Pack, Franck Richard adds another layer to this recent sub-genre: monsters.
Charlotte, driving alone through the French countryside to destinations unknown, has a run in with some bikers at a roadside burger van. She pays no attention to their advances and gives them the finger before driving off.
Further down the road, the bikers catch up with her car and Charlotte starts to worry about what they could want. Help arrives in the form of a hitchhiker, Max, who Charlotte picks up in the hope the bikers will leave her alone. It works, and Charlotte and Max begin to connect on their journey.
Max takes over driving while Charlotte sleeps, taking her to a diner in the middle of nowhere called La Spack, run by a no-nonsense ex-wrestler. When Max goes to the bathroom and doesn’t come back, Charlotte is thrown into a nightmare, one in which La Spack is the orchestrator and bad things happen when the moon is full…
From the off, it is clear that we are in the horror genre, even if we’ve seen nothing of the marketing. A desolate landscape, moody score, mist…it’s all there. What the director, Franck Richard, does well in the opening scenes is to make us wonder which of the numerous possible directions his film will take.
Our protagonist, Charlotte, is signposted as a strong character immediately. She listens to heavy metal, has dangerous tattoos and smokes like a chimney. She’s also not afraid to flip off a group of bikers that take a liking to her. It’s almost inevitable that there will be a hitchhiker somewhere along the way, and the film doesn’t waste time with a creepy set-up before introducing Max as a potential saviour for Charlotte. In this way, the film plays with expectations early on, by using established genre conventions intentionally, forcing us to wonder if we actually know where things are going. When Charlotte and Max reach La Spack, a dingy and dirty bar in the middle of nowhere, we remain on edge, wondering which sub-genre we’re stuck in the middle of. Will the bikers return and lay siege to the place? Is La Spack keeping a dangerous secret? Will Max turn out to be someone altogether more frightening? It’s an effective set-up, and it works well in the early stages.
It’s likely you will have seen and enjoyed many of the forerunners such as Haute Tension, Frontier(s), Martyrs, Caged, Calvaire and the like, and you will already be expecting some nastiness to occur once the action has shifted from the comparative safety of the road to the altogether more threatening environs of La Spack. There is enough interest when we get to the capture and imprisonment section of the film that tension is sustained. There are no indications as to why Charlotte has been captured, and nothing to suggest what will happen to her. The blood-letting and force-feeding of iron-heavy food make for an effective premise, and the inclusion of Phillip Nahon (Seul Contre Tous and Irreversible) to the cast might even add to the expectations. However, when we do find out the reason for it all it comes as rather a disappointment, as we are placed in well-trodden territory and get to play the game of “which movie did they get that from?” There is an element of Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train in the reasons behind La Spack’s actions, the creatures themselves look as though they could have crawled out of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, and the siege situation in a shack at the end of the film is pure Night Of The Living Dead. From there, we get an admittedly effective scene in high grass, the isolation conjured up by which is reminiscent of La Calvaire, but the ending itself returns to The Descent in an attempt to pull the rug from beneath our feet. After a good build up, it is rather sad that the rest of the film feels so recycled.
In terms of performance, things get a little better. While the biker gang (whose constant return feels ever more contrived) is little more than a patchwork of mean and nasty stereotypes, the individual performances of the small cast are quite impressive. As Max, Benjamin Biolay is suitably moody and tortured (for reasons we can’t go into for fear of ruining a plot twist), and as Charlotte, Emilie Dequenne does an admirable job considering her character begins as a potentially fiery protagonist and is reduced to the role of screaming captive fairly early on. The real standout though is Yolande Moreau as La Spack, who is fearsome, brutal, matronly and terrifying, providing enough menace and some very dark humour to make her a very likeable villain.
Other plus points include the cinematography. The early scenes of the desolate, mist-shrouded countryside are very evocative, and the later night-time scenes look eerie, bathed in moonlight. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the action itself doesn’t provide anything by way of scares to add to the effective visuals.
Rooted firmly within the fashionable sub-genre of French rural horror, despite the early suspense, The Pack is a disappointing outing considering the set-up and the potential for doing something remarkable. The change in direction at the mid-way point feels strained, rather than adding a new dimension in the way Martyrs managed. Instead, it’s all fairly average fare, and will likely appeal only to the die-hard fans of those films that have come before it.
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