FILM REVIEW: Village Of Shadows

It is rare to get properly freaked out by a film.  Other than this remarkable French effort I can think of only two others that have unnerved me quite as much.

The first is the original Ring movie from Japan, the second is the classic black & white chiller The Haunting.  It is clearly to The Haunting (and its spiritual sibling, The Others) that first-time director Fouad Benhammou has turned for inspiration – preferring the slow burning twist of mystery and suspense to the shock and gore tactics of most modern film-makers working in the genre.

The story is difficult to describe in a way that jumps out as anything special but trust me, you will want to see this.

A group of twenty-somethings head off for a holiday together in a couple of cars.  One vehicle is found impossibly empty, abandoned in the road not thirty seconds after overtaking the others on the edge of Ruiflec.  The village has itself been apparently deserted for years, but a series of disappearances and reappearances, visions and peculiar charcoal drawings begin to convince them that a malevolent power is at work in the shadows.

The cinematography is lush, reminiscent of Del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth; all slow shots and spiral stairs.  We are given the time and space to properly inhabit our surroundings and breathe in the atmosphere that haunts this village.  The soundscape is creepily effective also, making use of nerve-plucking silences and whispers amidst a fine soundtrack.  As the story progresses we get to understand something of the history of the place, throwing new light on what we have seen already and casting foreboding shadows on what is to come.

It is the kind of film that makes your brain whirr as your heart hammers, desperate to understand just what is going on.  Time and again your expectations are defied and the mystery deepens.  This can be off-putting to a certain kind of viewer, and it is certainly true that the French critics were not kind in their responses to the movie.  It is entertainment though, as much as art, and part of the entertainment is trying to unravel the events.  I love a movie to be dense like this.  I love seeing new things on a second and third viewing.  Most importantly I love a ghost story to get under my skin and leave me shivering, which this does beautifully.

The girls have the meatiest parts, and they each give great performances, full of layers and nuance.  Interestingly the director toys with our expectations of the roles each character plays, blurring relationships and misdirecting our focus.  It all serves to add to our sense of unease.  After all, if you don’t know who the key players are you don’t know who to root for, who is safe.  Or who to trust.

It’s just one of many ways Benhammonu whittles away at our sense of security as first one, then another fall victim to the darkness of the past.  Bring in the burning handprints, the ghostly child, prescient drawings, disappearances, shifts in space and tampered time, and you have a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat and jumping at shadows throughout.

(Two things to note: 1. The film is subtitled.  This puts some people off.  Don’t let it.  2. At present you will only be able to get hold of this as an imported dvd.  It’s worth it.)

5/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
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