Studio: Dimension Films
Director: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Writer: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Producer: Verane Frediani, Franck Ribiere
Stars: Chloe Coulloud, Felix Moati, Jeremy Kapone, Catherine Jacob, Chloe Marcq, Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Beatrice Dalle
When a young trio robs the gothic mansion of a bedridden old woman, they discover a secret locked in the house that threatens to destroy them all.
With an exterior surrounded by rusty wrought-iron lattices, and an interior populated by dusty taxidermy that would make Norman Bates beam, the gloomy Jessel estate is already ominous enough before neophyte nurse Lucie meets the grim resident confined to a bed upstairs. Wearing an insidious-looking respirator seemingly pulled from Lin Shaye’s personal collection for exploring The Further, once renowned ballet teacher Deborah Jessel now lies in an unresponsive coma. The legend of Mrs. Jessel’s reputation for a punishing style of dance instruction is matched only by the myth of an unknown treasure hiding somewhere inside her mansion’s cobwebbed walls.
Lucie lets her boyfriend William in on the nugget of knowledge that a fortune awaits in the forbidding fortress and its only guardian is a bedridden old woman. Armed with flashlights, as well as with William’s brother Ben, the trio makes for the marsh on Halloween night to explore the cavernous abode and hopefully make off with the treasure. What they don’t know is that the treasure has other plans. It turns out to not be a shiny bauble or glimmering loot chest at all, but something far more sinister in nature.
Revealing precisely what the treasure is, along with what happens next, would risk more than being a spoiler. It would risk being incorrect. Because with “Livid,” co-directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo eschew the frighteningly realistic, visceral thrills that made their 2007 film “Inside” (review here) a hit, and opt to instead craft an open-to-interpretation dark fairy tale rooted in Guillermo del Toro-like horror fantasy.
Thick with atmosphere from the crumbling, crusty walls of an eerie gothic manor, “Livid” is more than just the filmmaker-admitted nod to Hammer horror’s heyday of moody chills. “Livid” is Maury and Bustillo’s love letter to every fright film influence they have ever had, from the giallo masterpieces of Dario Argento to contemporary classics like “An American Werewolf in London” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” (Yes, I consider “Halloween III” a contemporary classic.) “Livid” is rich in reverential Easter eggs both subtle and overt, yet always with an eye towards sliding the references gracefully into their melting pot of imaginative ideas.
Including so many kitchen sinks does get Maury and Bustillo into some trouble though. They want so much to pay simultaneous homage to haunted house movies, slashers, suspense thrillers, and creature features that the split personalities of “Livid” bump into one another. It comes to a point where the story spins so far into dream logic territory that the effect of satisfaction delivered by the rest of the film feels diminished in the wake of narrative confusion. Maury and Bustillo are skilled storytellers. It is just that the story they are telling with “Livid” tries doing too many things at once.
“Livid” is slow, particularly during a midsection heavy on quietly creeping through shadowed corridors at tortoise speed, yet rarely dull. This is due to the fact that above and beyond their storytelling abilities, Maury and Bustillo know how to make a film that remains visually engaging no matter the content.
Laurent Bares’ cinematography is strikingly gorgeous and enough of a reason on its own to see and to enjoy the film. It is not just the imagery itself either, but the ideas behind them. Granted, the filmmakers get carried away with the typical clichés of broken dolls, stuffed animals, and bright red blood against white lacy dresses, but they frame everything so well that the redundancy loses its significance to the sumptuous eye candy.
And that is the same effect that balances out the rest of the film’s shortcomings, too. Momentarily remove the screenplay and the pacing from the equation and “Livid” is horror filmmaking as an art form. Although its meaning is interpretively ambiguous, the artistry doesn’t come with the kind of haughtiness that suggests pretension. Even when Maury and Bustillo falter, they still succeed. “Livid” leaves something to be desired as a story, but it is a key foundation cornerstone in establishing these two filmmakers as respectful and respectable risk takers who demonstrate a true love of the genre and of the medium.
NOTE: The film’s French title is “Livide.”
Review Score: 70