Among the Living (2014)

Also known as Aux yeux des vivants — translated to The Eyes of the Living in English — Among the Living is the third feature film from the exceptional French horror specialists, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, the guys responsible for the 2007 shocker InsideÀ l’intérieur in French — a home invasion thriller that elevates the tired slasher formula to disturbing new heights. The pair followed Inside with the 2011 haunted-house flick Livid, paying homage to the gothic architecture-centricity of 50s Hammer horror. In their new feature, Among the Living, the duo attempt to create their own twisted coming-of-age story, in the spirit of Stand by Me (1986) or Spielberg’s early Amblin pictures, such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

Opening with a brutal introduction, which sees the heavily pregnant Jeanne Faucheur (Béatrice Dalle) attempt to murder her husband Isaac (Francis Renaud) and unseen ‘monster’ of a son; the twisted mother eventually turns the knife on herself and her unborn child, after failing to complete her evil feat. Following the grizzly events, Isaac is prompted to take his son and newly extracted fetus on the road, in search of a new home.

Oh, I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me.
Oh, I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me.

Some years later, three young adolescent friends — Victor (Théo Fernandez), Dan (Damien Ferdel) and Tom (Zacharie Chasseriaud) — decide to skip their last day of school in order to get an early start on their summer vacation. The youths track through a large field, chat and smoke, before getting into strife after attempting to burn down a local barn. Fleeing the scene of the crime, the boys make their way to the nearby abandoned Blackwood Studios film set. After the delinquents break several windows, they stumble across the body of a woman — bound and gagged — inside the boot of a parked car. Scared, the boys run and hide, when a clocked shadowy figure — wearing a frightening clown mask — appears, in search of whoever was responsible for the loud ruckus. The kids manage to flee the film lot and notify the authorities. However, the police assume that the boys are simply fibbing, given their troubled track record, and send them back to their respective homes, unaware that the malicious folk who dwell at Blackwood are tailing the youths with their own vindictive agenda.

Widely renowned by foreign audiences for reinterpreting American classics, which are heightened by Bustillo and Maury’s external filmmaking perspectives, the duo’s features are notorious for taking bolder risks, showcasing bloodier violence and delving deeper into the murkier rabbit hole than most other fright flicks. The third feature of their ‘self-described’ American trilogy, borrows elements of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) — which was also superbly remade by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja in 2006 — and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The film’s American influence is further enhanced by channeling 80s teen movie nostalgia, particularly Stand by Me (1986) or The Goonies (1985), chiefly the boy’s love for comics, juvenile antics and rough relationships.

However, when the deformed child from the beginning, Klarence (Fabien Jegoudez), arrives at each homestead to stalk and murder the occupants, the feature unfortunately fails to live up to the raised bar set by Bustillo and Maury’s earlier work. Where Inside was elevated with its sheer unrestrained brutality and Livid by its nightmarish-fairy-tale aesthetic, Among the Living feels somewhat restrained, particularly through its lack of on-screen kills, almost betraying the filmmaker’s fierce former efforts. Bustillo and Maury still manage to conjure up chilling terror and an intense atmosphere throughout, but the slaughter scenes are utterly too generic, hurting the relentless mood promised in the picture’s opening act. Although the film shamelessly depicts uncompromising violence against innocent women and underage children, it’s only when we arrive at the chilling final act that we are treated to the first-rate gore fans have come to expect from Bustillo and Maury. Don’t get me wrong, the flick looks and sounds fantastic — thanks to a haunting score by Raphaël Gesqua, Livid (2011) — capturing a carnivalesque horror vibe with eccentric steampunk imagery and vibrant colors, but Among the Living is too generic of an entry in the horror film cannon to truly stand out in amongst the clutter.

'Should I wear my hockey mask?'
‘Should I wear my hockey mask?’

Furthermore, the three lead characters, Victor, Dan and Tom, are rather unlikable from the get-go, especially given their intolerable behavior; one can’t help but wish they eventually get what’s coming to them. While some of the characters become slightly more tolerable by the feature’s mid-point, they are never truly redeemed, leaving viewers somewhat disconnected from the fear. Other leads — the adults for instance — make illogical decisions on more than one occasion, predominantly choosing to leave temporarily incapacitated villains alive when they could have swiftly finished them off. Among the Living also comments on the effects of chemical use during warfare, Agent Orange for example — one of the herbicides and defoliants used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War — and similarly to Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), promises to deliver a nasty, heavily mutated antagonist at its core. Alas, when the ‘hidden’ distorted son, Klarence, is finally revealed — portrayed by Fabien Jegoudez, Mood Indigo (2013) — the nude, albino-like figure is slightly disappointing and feels bland and uninventive. Nonetheless, Klarence is at least wicked enough to conjure some cringe worthy scenes, chiefly when he attempts to choke someone to death with his bare foot.

Although, as technically sound as their more superior pictures, Inside and Livid, Among the Living isn’t too deep on a subtextual level and feels like a step backwards for the French dynamic duo, Bustillo and Maury, with weak central characters, cliché scenes — the picture features the most overused phrase in horror cinema history: ‘there’s something under my bed’— and toned-down violence, one can only hope the pair regains some of their better footing with their next project.

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Among the Living is released through Tanzi Distribution France