Hell is other Judge Adam Arseneau.
Sheitan. Take a guess what it means.
This one should have been a no-brainer. Imagine Hostel mixed up with Rosemary's Baby, sprinkled with some Deliverance and some wonderfully crazed performances. Throw in some top-tier French talent, and you've got a winning combination of a horror film. Sounds great, doesn't it?
Yeah, well. Expectations are dangerous things.
Facts of the Case
A group of young hooligans in France head to the club for a night of drinking, dancing, and causing trouble. The most onerous of the bunch, Bart, tries to pick up a young woman, but she seems much more interested in his friend Thai. Angry, Bart picks a fight, gets smashed over the head by a wine bottle, and is forcibly ejected from the discotheque.
The young woman invites the friends back to her rural family home to continue the debauchery and drinking, so they pile into their Volkswagen and take off for the countryside. Soon they arrive in an odd inbred town in the middle of nowhere, holed up in an elegant but poorly maintained mansion.
The grounds keeper, Joseph (an unrecognizable Vincent Cassel, Ocean's Twelve, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Irreversible) cooks up a goat for supper, then takes them around the village, introducing them to the odd inhabitants of the town. Since Joseph is ten times the creepy rolled into a crazed package, the visitors soon suspect they have stumbled into the middle of something sinister …
Even for horror film standards, Sheitan is a film constructed from the barest of plot outlines. Guys and girls travel to rural village for a night of drinking and sex, but are accosted by a group of satanic (assumed) locals who are set out to perform some kind of ritual (assumed). None of this is actually stated in the film, you see. A few tossed bits of dialogue imply some sort of arrangement with the devil, but blink and you'll miss it.
For unspecified reasons, the house and surrounding village are full of skinny, warped males and disproportionately attractive women—we can guess why, but the film never bothers to explain. Nor does the film explain the method behind Joseph and his "family" or their madness. This is a horror film in the loosest of terms: take teenagers, put them in a big empty house, fill it with creepy people, and watch the sheitan hit the fan, so to speak. Most of the film is a hallucinatory romp through an empty mansion filled with creepy plastic dolls, getting drunk, skinny-dipping, and trying to forcibly persuade girls into three-ways.
In most teen slasher-type films, the protagonists may be stupid and utterly ignorant of their own fate, but none of them are particularly reprehensible. Oh sure, there's always the slutty girl who gets it first, but there's always somebody left to root for. In Sheitan, all the characters are complete and total douchebags, each one worse than the next. They cheat, lie, steal, treat each other poorly, and delegate the women in the group to little more than sexual slaves to be passed from mate to mate. The girls are so vapid and clueless that they actually seem to enjoy the attention. These kids are so badly behaved, so crude and disgusting that you begin to beg aloud for their destruction.
The secret irony of the film, I suppose, is that the real monsters in the film are Bart and his friends. They are so unlikable and foul that they are the "real" evil in the film, or something like that. Social commentary and horror films are a tenuous combination at best, worse when the elements are so heavy-handed. If this is a critique on the status of youths today in France or on hooliganism, whatever message was set out to be expressed by the director has been lost in the lousiness of the film. Maybe I'm supposed to identify with these kids on some personal level but, truth be told, I don't want to meet the people who identify with these characters.
When Sheitan finally begins to pick up the pace, it does so with ferocity. The last 30 minutes of the film are a twisted mess of lurching camera angles, demonic snarls, quick cuts, and screaming women. You may not follow exactly what is going on, but it makes for an effective delivery all the same. This last-minute intensity helps to ease the pain that is Sheitan, but it comes a bit too late to save the film from mediocrity.
Visually, the film has decent production values and an impressive transfer—muted colors, decent black levels, high detail, and contrast—all on par with DV-shot film. Outdoor day sequences are crisp and vibrant (especially saturated reds) and black levels hold up to low-light sequences with little sign of grain or compression artifacts.
Tartan went all out for audio—we get a Dolby 2.0 stereo track and two surround modes, both 5.1 and DTS. As expected, the 2.0 track is thin and low on bass, but both surround modes are full and reasonably ambient. Dialogue can get muddled, but not overly so. The score is a mix of hard-pounding French dance and rap mixed with an ambient guitar track, which sets the mood of the film nicely. I prefer the DTS presentation, which is more full and dynamic than its counterparts.
A 23-minute "making of" trailer is the film's only real supplement feature but, ironically, the story about how Sheitan came to be created is much more interesting than the film itself. Cassel wound up involved with an independent group of filmmakers (not unlike Brad Pitt running with the Jackass crew) called Kourtrajme and, by sheer world of mouth alone, their series of small handmade videos was screened repeatedly on the Internet, by Canal+, and eventually theatrically. With their popularity in France exploding, the success of these underground films led Cassel and director Kim Chapiron to undertake a larger theatrical project, i.e., this film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only thing that saves Sheitan from being an unmitigated disaster is Vincent Cassel's hilarious performance as twisted housekeeper Joseph. His character is like a creation from a mad scientist's laboratory, and Cassel milks it for every cent. Unhinged, uncensored, and utterly over-the-top, it is the kind of performance an actor only gets once in a lifetime (maybe more, if your name is Christopher Walken). It works on such an utterly absurd and unrecognizable level that it makes the movie unforgettable. His excrement-eating grin and manic eyes are haunting and will stick with you for days.
Sheitan is utterly fantastic when Cassel is on screen—his performance is magnetic and hilarious and frightening all at the same time. Unfortunately, when he is off-camera, the film is boring and nauseatingly obnoxious. As a secondary character, he is simply not on-screen nearly enough to rescue the film.
Nothing is worse than when a film looks great on paper, but sucks out loud. I mean, a fantastically wild performance by Vincent Cassel in a film created by a group of hip rebellious French filmmakers has awesome written all over it…but Sheitan missteps every chance it gets. The film is painfully awkward when it should be scary, disgustingly crude when it tries to be sexy, and tediously boring instead of funny, it is a horror film with all the violence, entertainment, parody, and irony removed, leaving behind only a myriad of MTV-style cinematic trick cuts and boorishly bad hooligan behavior.
I had high hopes for this one. With the exception of Cassel's gloriously unhinged performance, there is nothing in Sheitan worth getting excited over.
In a word, Sheitan is disappointing. But give Cassel an Oscar, man. Or at the very least, lots of money …
Wait, he's married to Monica Bellucci, isn't he? Forget it, deal's off. He's taken too much from us already.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• The Making of Sheitan
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