Judge Joel Pearce longs for the horror genre's halcyon days, when torture and mayhem were good, clean fun.
What's the worst that can happen?
I hate to begin a review with a cultural generalization, but I think this is fair to say: Artsy Belgian directors have no place in the gross-out horror genre. When a brand new director with arthouse sensibilities decides to create an homage to his favorite horror flicks from the '70s and '80s, I get nervous. As it turns out, I had every right to be nervous. Calvaire is a well-crafted film that totally misses the mark. It understands the form of the horror film, but not the reason we go to see them.
The story is appropriately simple. Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas, Tiresia), a traveling singer, heads south for a Christmas gala after a gig at a seniors home. His van breaks down a couple kilometers from a tiny French inn in the middle of nowhere. The innkeeper Bartel (Jackie Berroyer, Président) is a psychological disaster, eager to take someone in for the night. The inn hasn't gotten much business lately, and Bartel warns Marc to stay away from the nearby village. When Marc discovers Bartel going through his van, though, he realizes that danger may be closer than the village. Then, the real pain begins.
Simple story? Check. Creepy location? Check. Strong performances? Check. Grisly and disgusting torture scenes? Check. Director Fabrice Du Welz has a very firm grasp of horror conventions. Several sequences in Calvaire are as disturbing as any horror movie I've seen. They push the boundaries of what even the most voracious fans will be comfortable with. After all that gore and grit, though, the film ends with one of the slowest, more boring chase sequences I've ever seen in my life. The finale is ambiguous rather than shocking or fun. As the famed colonel said (sort of), the end of a horror movie should hit you like a diamond bullet between the eyes, not leave you wondering if the filmmakers just ran out of cash.
The performances show this same blend of horror and art film sensibilities. While Berroyer and the villagers understand exactly how to be genuinely creepy and menacing, Lucas' performance is all wrong. We never get to know this man, which means we don't feel as much as we should for him when he's horribly tortured. We feel some pathos for him, since only a monster would enjoy seeing anyone put through such an ordeal. We don't feel deeply enough, though, because we haven't had the chance to connect with him on a personal level. And ultimately, this is the problem with the entire movie. It's impossible to have any fun watching Calvaire, since it's so relentlessly miserable and grisly. Most of the films in this genre keep tongue firmly planted in cheek for a reason. The ones that don't find other ways to pump us full of adrenaline. We want illicit thrills from horror movies; all we get from Calvaire is a dose of awkwardness with a double shot of discomfort. In the end, there's not much reason to go all the way to Belgium for horror thrills.
For fans of the film, there's no reason not to grab this release from Palm. The video transfer is acceptable. It presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced. Colors and sharpness are fine. Jitters and jumps during camera movement make it all too obvious that the transfer was ported from a PAL master.
The audio transfer—a French Dolby 5.1 track—is better. Dialogue is clear, and the surrounds kick into action a few times. The infamous bar scene is particularly impressive.
There aren't many special features, but we do get a production featurette. It features interviews with Du Welz, who is much more enthusiastic about the film than I am. The piece does help us understand what he was trying to accomplish, although it doesn't make the movie any more fun to watch.
If you have a strong constitution and a love for arthouse films, you may want to give Calvaire a try. It's an well made film, disturbing and unsettling. It's not much fun, though, which is why most of us turn to horror movies. For most people, Calvaire is one to skip. It looks like a horror movie, but it doesn't feel like one.
Calvaire is guilty. Du Welz is hereby deported back to Belgium. They
can deal with him there.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Production Featurette
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