Tuesday, March 11, 2014

SXSW World Premiere: Among The Living (Aux Yeux Des Vivants)

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the world premiere of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's latest film, Among The Living (Aux Yeux Des Vivants), at the SXSW Film Midnighters series. Maury himself was on hand at Austin's Stateside Theatre to answer audience questions after the screening, and gave some great insight into this third film from the directorial duo. Maury stated that he and Bustillo do, in fact, consider their three films to date (2007's Inside [Á L'interieur] and the 2011 Livid [Livide] together with Among The Living) to make up a trilogy of sorts, though the plots and settings of the three differ greatly. Viewers of all three will find some definite thematic similarities, starting with the fact that all of the films deal with family and parenthood through a warped lens. According to Maury, Inside was their love letter to the slasher genre, while Livid owed more to the Gothic atmospheric horror of the mid-20th century. Among The Living, however, pays clear homage to American horror films of the 1980s, with obvious nods to films like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. 

Among The Living gives viewers the opposite of what they expect from the very first scene, setting an uneasy tone that lasts the full 90 minutes of the film. We follow a group of early trick-or-treaters up the steps of a run-down home in a rural town, and meet a husband and wife whose unhappiness is palpable. The wife, evidently about nine months pregnant, waits on her husband hand and foot while he watches a news program about known birth defects in the children of soldiers subjected to a particular form of chemical warfare. In a subtle bit of exposition, his dog tags glint at his chest and a vein throbs at his temple, and he is struck by a bizarre attack that involves strange and disturbing images flashing behind his eyes one by one. The audience is forced to join him for this, and when we return to reality, we've almost completely forgotten his hapless wife, who appears suddenly behind him with a bat and cracks him several times on the head.

 Leaving her husband for dead, she trades the bat for a rather large kitchen knife, and ascends the stairs to the bedroom of another child the audience has hitherto been unaware of. We watch through the child's eyes as his mother advances toward him, slashing wildly with the knife. Somehow, his father makes it upstairs just in time and puts a stop to the attack, but his wife, in her desparation, turns the knife on the unborn child in her belly. Father comforts young Klarence, and the two make plans to disappear and start a new family, among the living. True to their roots in extreme gore, the directors make sure that we stop to take in the wound where the woman's fetus has been removed and taken away.

Exposition behind us, we now move into the true first act of the film, and meet our protagonists, three junior high school-aged boys whose classroom antics earn them detention on the last day of the school year. But instead of serving their sentence, the three decide to ditch campus and smoke cigarettes in a picturesque field abutting the barn of a cranky old man. When a misguided attempt at arson goes awry, the three flee to a far more interesting place to hide out and avoid the consequences: the nearby Blackwood Studios, an abandoned lot of film sets that have been left to vandals for many years. It is here that the boys encounter a hulking figure in a clown mask who has a woman bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. When they bring the police back later to check it out, their story is written off as some sort of boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, and they return to their homes for varying degrees of punishment. 

But Klarence and his father have been found. Their hideout and bizarre rituals at Blackwood Studios are threatened, and so Klarence must pay each of the boys a visit, in turn, to ensure that they never bring any more police to investigate. The remainder of the film unfolds as one of the most unique home invasion horror thrillers you'll ever see, with a monster that will haunt you long after the film concludes. The actors playing the three boys are quite good, and their on-screen chemistry with the other characters in their lives makes it hard to watch as the body count rises. However, the directors have found a rare balance in evincing sympathy for the attacked as well as the attacker, and Klarence comes with his fair share of pathos. But don't think for a moment that this film does not bring to the table some very creative and shocking violence. Bustillo and Maury show a great understanding of body horror in some key climactic scenes, with excruciating pacing that had the premiere audience squirming in their seats.

One of the things I found to be most unsettling about Among The Living was the film's insistence that our protagonists were not safe even in the daylight. So many films allow viewers to feel secure in the fact that the daytime is safe, but as soon as the sun goes down, to expect things that go bump in the night. In this film, several of the tensest sequences take place in broad daylight, which means that the audience never gets a chance to relax back into their seats. Composer Raphael Gesqua's score is equally relentless, and so original as to remain stuck in your head for hours after you leave the theatre. The first two acts of the film feature whimsical, almost carnival-like melodies, tainted with slight hints of discord that portend bad things ahead. The climactic scenes, on the other hand, are swept along with a brisk and almost lilting score that is both classic and fresh, and wouldn't be out of place in one of James Whale's original Frankenstein films.

As of now, this film has a release date of April 10th in Belgium, where much of the shooting took place. There doesn't appear to be a US release planned just yet, but if you're in Austin for SXSW, you'll have two more chances to catch this one screening at the Alamo Ritz, tonight at midnight, and again Friday at midnight. Keep an eye on Metaluna Productions who may have further information about a much-needed international release for this striking film.

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