Ah, France! Wine, cheese, croissants, mimes (creepy!)…France is the birthplace of cinema and home to such legendary filmmakers as Godard and Truffaut. It’s hard to imaging some of the most brutal and blood-soaked horrors in the world originating from a country so effortlessly chic, but that is exactly what was happening in the early 2000s. Directors like Pascal Laugier, Alexandre Aja, and Claire Denis pushed the boundaries of sex and violence until they broke, earning their place in the heart of horror-loving Francophiles. Included in this list are the eight very best in French horror and two films from their French-speaking neighbor, Belgium.
Ah France – vin, fromage, croissants, mimes … La France est le berceau du cinéma et abrite des cinéastes légendaires comme Godard et Truffaut. Il est difficile d’imaginer l’horreur la plus brutale et la plus sanglante du monde à l’origine d’un pays si chic et sans effort, mais c’est exactement ce qui se passait au début des années 2000. Des réalisateurs comme Pascal Laugier, Alexande Aja et Claire Denis ont repoussé les limites du sexe et de la violence jusqu’à leur rupture, gagnant ainsi leur place au cœur des francophiles épris d’horreur. Cette liste comprend les huit meilleurs films d’horreur français et deux films de leur voisin francophone, la Belgique.
1. Martyrs (2008) Directed by Pascal Laugier
Pascal Laugier‘s hyper violent masterpiece (and number 1 on my Top 25 list), Martyrs is the story of Lucie who meets her best friend Anna at an orphanage after escaping a childhood of brutal torture. Years later, Anna accompanies Lucie to the home of the family she believes was responsible for her captivity but, as Lucie begins to exact her revenge. the house reveals horrors more brutal than either girl could imagine. The jolting twist that takes place in this film is what makes it really stand out and gives the viewer essentially two films both equally horrific, with an ending that will guarantee hours of post film discussion with other horror fans.
2. A L’interieur (Inside, 2007) Directed by Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo
Warning- if you are pregnant you probably want to save this film until your kids is say, away at college. The plot is relatively simple: Sarah, a pregnant woman who recently survived a car accident that claimed the life of her baby’s father, is preparing to deliver her baby the next day. She turns down the offer of her mother to stay with her that night so she can bring her to the hospital the next day and decides to stay alone. It’s Christmas Eve and there is a knock at the door…Maury and Bustillo’s A l’interieur (Inside) is a blood soaked home invasion film that will turn the stomachs of even the most hardened horror fan.
3. Haute Tension (High Tension, 2005) Directed by Alexandre Aja
Haute Tension is the film that made America stand up- or rather slide down in their theater seats- and take note of the gory, adrenaline filled films coming out of France. Alex and Marie are two best friends who head to Alex’s parent’s country house for a weekend of quiet studying but when a killer comes to the door the girls have to put down the books and pick up weapons in a bloody battle with a fantastic twist. Aja has gone on to produce and direct some of The Scariest Things’ favorite films but this one is his piéce de résistance.
4. Ils (Them, 2006) Directed by Xavier Palud & David Moreau
Ils is a French- Romanian film about a young teacher, Clementine and her husband who move from France to Romania into a huge “fixer upper” on the edge of town. Woken in the middle of the night by the sound of loud music coming from their driveway, the couple’s investigation into the sounds unfolds into a nightmare cat and mouse home invasion thriller with an utterly devastating conclusion. And oh yeah, this film is based on actual events…remember that when you try to sleep after watching this film.
5. Frontiere(s) (2007) Directed by Xavier Gens
Frontier(s) is a nasty film about a group of young Arab Parisians who are running from a violent clash with police after a right-wing extremist is elected French President. Heading toward Amsterdam, they stop in a roadside motel run by a family who would feel as at home attending the dinner party in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as they would a Neo-Nazi rally. Gens‘ film is extremely brutal and filled with torture and over the top gore that is not for the faint of heart…or stomach.
6. Raw (2016) Directed by Julia Ducournau
Fans of The Scariest Things need no introduction to the 2016 film Raw. It is one of Eric’s favorites and made more than one of our Top 25 Lists! Raw is the classic tale of a vegetarian girl who goes to vet school, eats a rabbit kidney and starts to discover she has a taste for flesh- and she’s not just craving burgers! Ducournau’s film is a coming of age tale that mixes the insecurity and awkwardness of transitioning into adulthood with some of the most gruesome body horror I’ve covered my eyes for in ages!
7. Climax (2018) Directed by Gasper Noé
No list of the best French films would be complete without at least one film from Gasper Noé, an Argentinian who emigrated to France in the 1970s. Never one to hold back, his films are made to shock and awe and Climax is no exception. A French-Belgian co-production, this film is about an international dance troupe who throw a party that pirouettes to the dark side after the dancers begin to get disoriented and trip out. Climax is a tough film. The distressed energy of the dancers comes through the screen making it an experience and not just a film; a true work of art.
8. Trouble Every Day (2001) Directed by Claire Denis
Trouble Every Day is an erotic horror film that transposes sex and violence to the point that it doesn’t cross the line, rather posits that maybe there isn’t even a line to begin with? The story of a honeymooning couple, a disgraced scientist and a blood-thirsty vamp with a literal climax so disturbing that I noted this film as a bridge too far on our cannibal horror podcast episode. However, as with Noé, no list covering contemporary French films would be complete without lauding Claire Denis. This film is beautifully made and dripping in blood.
The Belgian Block:
9. Alleluia (2014) Directed by Fabrice du Weltz
Belgian director Fabrice du Weltz’s Alleluia skews more toward thriller than horror but this film deserves to be seen. What starts as lunch date between the lonely, insecure Gloria and the handsome charmer (and conman) Michel turns into a sick story of frenzied obsession and murder inspired by the real-life killer couple known as the “lonely hearts killers”. The film’s stars Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas are impeccable.
10. Calvaire (The Ordeal, 2004) Directed by Fabrice du Weltz
Another film by Belgian dynamo Fabrice du Weltz also staring Laurent Lucas , Calvaire is so uncomfortable to watch it is only on this list because it is seared into my brain. The Belgian equivalent of hillbilly horror Calvaire is not just an ordinary bridge too far for me- it’s a swinging rope bridge over the Grand Canyon. Laurent plays Marc, a musician who is traveling for gigs when his van breaks down, and he has to seek shelter in a rural inn at the behest of the proprietor, Mr. Bartel. What follows is horrific degradation at the hands of Bartel and the other villagers…after this film, Belgium is coming off your list of places to go.