Director: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Writer: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Producer: Fabrice Lambot, Jean-Pierre Putters, Caroline Piras
Stars: Anne Marivin, Theo Fernandez, Francis Renaud, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Damien Ferdel, Fabien Jegoudez, Nicolas Giraud, Chloe Coulloud, Sidwell Weber, Dominique Frot, Beatrice Dalle
Three boys accidentally rouse a maniac who terrorizes their families when they ditch school to explore an abandoned movie studio.
By now we know better than to expect a timely release for a Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo film. Rocketing to the top of the “Hot Horror Prospects” list after their breakout 2007 thriller “Inside” (review here), the duo’s 2011 follow-up feature “Livid” (review here) notoriously landed in a limbo where it remains unreleased in North America six years later. The “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” team also tapped the pair to helm “Leatherface” only to push the completed prequel’s release from 2015 to 2016 to 2017 in a weird distribution model that first put the flick on DirectTV.
This is why I laugh when I look back on attending the SXSW premiere of “Among the Living” in 2014. Having heard what Julien Maury, who was in attendance, had to say about his movie while also considering how foggy “Inside” was in my memory, the responsible reviewer in me reasoned that I should first revisit Maury and Bustillo’s debut, track down an import of “Livide,” and then dissect “Among the Living” as it related to a bigger body of work. At the time I naively assumed I’d only have to wait a few months at most before getting a second look at their third collaboration to write a fully informed critique.
Little did I know “Among the Living” would languish in yet another distribution purgatory until Shudder finally rescued it with an online streaming release in 2017. I learned the valuable lesson to never drag my feet on writing a review, particularly when the seemingly cursed Maury and Bustillo are involved. Otherwise, I might again be doomed to collaborate with the ghosts in a three-year-old notebook while making sense of then and now perspectives.
Back at SXSW 2014, chatter throughout the festival described “Among the Living” as “Stand by Me” meets “Friday the 13th” (review here). Co-writer and co-director Julien Maury further fleshed this comparison during his Q&A by likening the movie to a dark and twisted Amblin Entertainment production from the 1990s.
He’s not wrong. Some of that Steven Spielberg/Stephen King sensibility certainly streaks the coming of age undercurrent. Just don’t expect the same style of sentimental charm to streak the bloody brutality dominating the film’s latter half.
Victor, Dan, and Tom are a trio of chums cut from the same cloth as the “It” and “Stranger Things” gangs. These three boys bear the disparate physicalities commonly associated with their stereotypes. Dan is the bespectacled bookworm prone to wetting his pants. Tom is the athletic brawn built tough by an abusive father. Victor is the mop-topped Everyboy reading comics under his textbooks before coming home to a relatively fun family caught up in less dysfunction than the rest.
Maury and Bustillo’s script wants to establish its central kids as boys who cried wolf so no one will listen when they discover danger in the depths of an abandoned movie studio. Unfortunately, “Among the Living” goes so far with developing their misbehaving personalities that Tom, Dan, and Victor become mean-spirited punks instead of precocious brats with forgivable proclivities toward childhood mischief.
Tom pees on the other two boys to make them row a boat faster. All three of them plot to burn down an old farmer’s barn because they dislike his demeanor. Tom nearly buries an ax blade in the old man’s face too. “Affectionate” insults range from typical jabs about small dicks and sex with each other’s mothers to coarsely casual use of terms like “fairy” and “f*ggot.”
These aren’t the likable preteens Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, and River Phoenix were. These are deviant dickheads who deal in unprovoked anarchy of the physical and verbal varieties.
No viewer is moved to moan “poor them!” That’s a character creation problem when exposition ends up being a passive activity of watching things happen to the three boys instead of projecting one’s own self right there at their hips.
They don’t have to be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But their experiences should be more universally relatable than wanting to shoot a teacher because she assigned detention on the last day of school.
Unsympathetic leads earn “Among the Living” a passing grade at best for its adolescent adventure angle. As the film’s identity begins ping-ponging between subgenres, the story built around the boys loses itself once the movie mixes in its meat of slasher and stranger-inside-the-house horror.
Victor, Dan, and Tom’s afternoon hooky leads the trio to a remote lot where they spy a masked man dragging a gagged woman into captivity. Focus quickly comes off the kids to shift onto the killer when they inadvertently interrupt the unknown evil underground and invite it to follow them back home.
At this point, “Among the Living” essentially becomes an extended series of hide and seek sequences punctuated by pulse-pounding pops. Maury and Bustillo made their names on this type of terror tapestry woven from pure shock and awe. Admittedly, their techniques are effective, emitting jolting pulses of audiovisual atmosphere crafted from crazy cinematic carnage.
But this lower road to a purebred horror show raises speed bumps by teasing lean context that doesn’t substantially fill in the fiction. Troubled families are established for the troublesome teens, though glimpses at their varied home lives serve only as artificial distractions. It’s the same strategy used by the pared down John Williams oeuvres pumping in illusory Amblin air through sound instead of through scripting.
“Among the Living” comes out looking great, sounding great, and packs in plenty of stark chills including a pregnant woman stabbing her stomach and an infant trapped in a washing machine’s rising waters. Yet that isn’t necessarily enough to qualify it as a recommendable horror movie because much of its motivation is rendered meaningless by a mostly emotionless story. “Among the Living” excels at eliciting reactionary impulses. Getting an audience to invest in true immersion however is easier said than done.
PS: Why would those two particular graves be next to each other in the cemetery?
NOTE: The French title for “Among the Living” is “Aux Yeux des Vivants.”
Review Score: 60