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Screamfest: French film turns INSIDE out, and zombies are WASTING AWAY

Wednesday was a day of disappointments at Screamfest, as two films unspooled that displayed plenty of promise before dissolving down the drain. The first seemed to be a case of strange artistic sensibility; the second was simply an example of a good idea that wore out its welcome.

The French film INSIDE (a.k.a., A L’INTERIEUR, pictured at top) begins as an utterly convincing, serious thriller with a great premise, before exploding into a deluge of graphic gore. The bloodshed is intense and brilliantly rendered, but it goes so far over the top that you wonder what it’s doing in a movie that seemed to have higher aspirations. The story has a young pregnant woman alone in her home on Christmas Eve, expecting to give birth the next morning; four months previously, she was driving during a car crash that killed her husband. A nameless woman breaks into her home, apparently intent on stealing the unborn baby from the womb. The story plays out like a nonsensical nightmare (How does the intruder break in? Why is she able to overpower the police?), leading you to guess that it’s all some kind of masochistic guilt-ridden fantasy. There are also more than a few hints that the intruder may be a ghost; at the very least, her visual resemblance suggests that she is a dark doppelganger of the heroine.

Unfortunately, these intriguing hints are drowned in the welter of blood. It’s like a gusher: once it starts, it never stops. The heavy duty shocks are extremely effective, and directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury are absolutely fearless about not holding back. But they go so far over the top they leap off the rails: at one point, after being stuck in the brain with a pair of scissors, a victim comes back to life only to be killed again, and we wonder why we’re suddenly watching a zombie movie. . In the end, watching INSIDE is like watching a stuck pig bleed out: long before the final death rattle, you’ve seen the end coming; when it finally arrives, your expectation of it has left you numb and indifferent.

Nevertheless, the audience responded mostly positively, judging by their applause, and it’s easy to imagine gore-hounds loving the flick. Other viewers, expecting the straight thriller that the film initially promises to be, are likely to be disappointed if not completely outraged. One viewer leaving the theatre told me in a single word that the film was “appalling.” A director of another film screening at the fest, called INSIDE “effective but pointless.”

The weird thing about all this is that Bustillo and Maury clearly know what they are doing and are totally in control of the effects they want to achieve. There is no doubt that they have talent, and it will be interesting to see what they do next. Reportedly, they have been signed to remake HELLRAISER, and it’s easy to imagine their cinematic style will mesh well with the Clive Barker franchise – even if INSIDE’s attempt to blend a serious thriller with a splatterfest creates a mixture as appetizing as vanilla ice cream covered in steak tartar.

Interestingly enough, ice cream and steak tartar is no more bizarre than some of the items on the menu in the night’s next offering, WASTING AWAY. In this riff on RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, one of the characters has a penchant for creating weird food combinations, such as soft serve ice cream mixed with beer. Unfortunately, this culinary experiment hides the flavor of a toxic element that has found its way into the mix after a barrel fell off an army truck in transit. The four friends who eat the glowing green concoction die and turn into zombies, but they don’t know it. The film makes use of a clever visual gimmick: reality – in which the zombies are slow-moving corpses – is presented in black-and-white; the perception of the zombies – in which they see themselves as normal – is rendered in color.

For about fifteen minutes, the film gets a certain amount of mileage out of the concept of a confused quartet wandering around the streets of Los Angeles at night, unaware of the reason everyone they meet shrieks in terror and runs away – at accelerated speed. (The idea is that zombie brainwaves are slow, so the movements of normal people seem comparatively fast.) After that, the joke starts to wear out its welcome, and by midway point it becomes tedious.

The film looks good for its low-budget, but it has a slightly amateurish feel, as if a bunch of friends got together to showcase their talents. Scenes go on and on so that each actor can do his shtick, and you find yourself wishing that someone in the editing room had had the nerve to say, “The routine’s not funny anymore; let’s move on.” Even worse, as the story goes on, little uplifting, sentimental moments creep in – and creep in again – and they are presented as if we are supposed to take them seriously. Which is rather hard to do when one of the characters is reduced to a talking head carried about in a bowling ball bag (with holes cut out for the eyes, of course).

Still, the film has at least one good line. When finally confronted with the realization that he is one of the walking dead, one characters says, “But I don’t feel like a zombie,” to which a cohort replies, “Idiots don’t feel stupid – but they are!”