“AMONG THE LIVING” (SXSW Movie Review)
The fantastic films of French filmmaking pair Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury are entirely informed by horror cinema. That sentiment and interest in homage is, of course, no stranger to the genre, but coming from the duo who debuted with something like INSIDE, it’s both more sophisticated and more punishing than one might expect from a simple tip of the hat. Within three varied films, the two boast their own singular style, one concerned with stunning aesthetic, disturbing family yarns, specific subgenres and the magic of film, be it something beautiful or utterly horrifying; be it something both.
AMONG THE LIVING finds the directors attempting to take the wonders of an adolescent coming-of-age horror story à la Stephen King or Steven Spielberg and bend it to their abject will. Its opening is a grotesque prelude as a pregnant mother (Bustillo & Maury regular and legendary actress Béatrice Dalle) violently sets upon a crude husband and her poor, deformed son. The directors’ particular atmospheric glow is familiar, growing even more so as we’re introduced (on Halloween) to an expectant mother creeping about her house with all manner of blunt and sharp objects. The image of the covetous villain of INSIDE now pregnant herself is impossible to ignore, as Bustillo & Maury seemingly intend to draw upon the audience’s memory of their unforgettable film. Are we to imagine this is what her success would have, could have, disturbingly grown into? Is Dalle’s gruesome demise within the first few minutes a simple request to put their previous, now-legendary piece out of mind?
That seems betraying of Bustillo & Maury’s filmmaking perspective. Instead, it suggests they’ve worked their own canon into that which informs their work. The atmosphere, subjects and niche horror may change, but their interest in familial terror remains. AMONG THE LIVING then, interestingly begins in earnest as a more masculine tale than either INSIDE or LIVID, both of which concerned themselves with mothers and daughters. As the father and his monstrous child run off to begin a new life, we’re introduced to three other monsters: adolescent boys. The first major chunk of AMONG THE LIVING—it often feels as if there are many films in just this one—follows the trio of school friends as they get in and out of trouble; horror comics during class, lewd language, etc. The summer beckons, and these three can’t be contained. Avoiding detention, they cut out for the rest of the day and find themselves in the freeing rural fields and June glow of an Amblin picture, with all manner of misbehavior in tow. It’s just a little darker. There’s swearing and ribbing and cigarettes, sure, but also stranger threats to burn down a mean neighbor’s barn. Outside of the introduction, it’s the first threat that Bustillo & Maury are bearing down, closing in on what’s been fairly light so far.
At an abandoned film studio the boys like to hang in, they run afoul of a kidnapped woman and her father and son tormentors; one in a gas mask, the other in a clown’s. One would expect the rest of AMONG THE LIVING to chronicle the kids trapped in broken down film sets and fending off this strange killer. Rather, the directors find an opportunity to again explore parallel families. The youngsters return home and the grown, deformed boy follows.
When AMONG THE LIVING shifts gears into full-on slasher territory—with the gore to follow, there’s an amazing face slice—who lives and who dies depends on the strength of their family unit. It’s possible only a family willing to go bat for one another could possibly face a father and son so connected, so warped. It’s this section that sees AMONG THE LIVING at its most successful. Like INSIDE, Bustillo & Maury have found a way to make their slashers frightening, something often sorely missing from the subgenre. Their thoroughly punishing use of violence is surely a boon, but there’s an understanding of what’s unsettling here as well. The killer on hand isn’t overly mutated, just strange enough to be on the line between human and something else. Confronting the audience stark white and naked, and with ultraviolent intent, AMONG THE LIVING hosts a villain to remember, to haunt your thoughts.
Clearly the lowest budget of their three features, there’s a frustrating contrast in AMONG THE LIVING in that it’s the biggest of Bustillo & Maury’s ideas. There’s a necessity for space and room to breathe that just isn’t present. But the fact that the film remains scary, affecting and reflective of these exceptional directors, despite a messy structure, is just a testament that the two are vital and truly worth watching.