The fellow who recommended the delightful Mephisto Waltz directed me to his long-dormant horror film blog, which had a review of this on it, and it went to the top of my list. Turns out this fellow and I share a certain horror film sensibility. I was also impressed that almost all of the reviews on the IMDb mention that once you've seen one of this director's movies, you never really mistake him for any other, and that kind of thing always appeals to me. Plus, it's from 1982, which is almost as good as being from the 70s. And, it's French! Okay, lets rock this mutha!
We open with these French guys with big, bad hair and too-tight [or—not tight enough?] clothes wheeling a big drum of toxic waste into this underground vault. They look like they are outside the pyramids of Gaza, but apparently they're right next to this charming Chateau, which just happens to have a toxic waste dump/family crypt beneath. What, your house doesn't have one of those?
They wheel the drum into place, then hop next door to the crypt, where they change their career hats from toxic waste disposal to grave robbery. They open the coffins of this mother and daughter—both suspiciously well-preserved—then: the earthquake! It spills some of the toxic waste, which fogs up the place and reanimates the daughter. Why it doesn't do anything for the mom is not explained. The daughter decides to test the strength of her rather long, sharp Lee press-on nails in the eye sockets of one of the grave robbers. They didn't break or chip! The other robber just happened to have one side of his face on the ground where the waste flowed, giving him a rather intense chemical peel, in a scene surely one of the key influences on The Dark Knight. He's going to need Dr. Zizmor.
Now we meet this obnoxious American couple that I just adored. Some people on IMDb complain about their constant bickering, but when people are this obnoxious [and can be turned off with the touch of a button] I find their types delightful and hilarious. They arrive at this restaurant, but are told it won't be open for an hour, due to the earthquake. Barbara, the big-haired redhead, is pissed at having to wait, but says she's not even hungry anyway. They go out to this field, where she takes pictures of the trees, birds, and walking corpse. She then suddenly jumps up and says "I'm hungry. I want to eat now." She then enters into one of the most hateful, passive-aggressive fits of sheer malice to Craig, her husband, whom she seems to despise. The feeling seems to be mutual. She is pissed because, for some reason, he made her give up her career as an actress and take up photography. Or she never made it as an actress and just BLAMES him, which seems equally plausible. She screeches "I'm not a goddamned photographer—I'm an ACTRESS!" Anyway, she's just one big pissed-off ball of passive-aggression and needy narcissism, and I LOVE HER.
So the walking corpse comes into the chateau and wanders around while a realtor is showing people around downstairs. She wanders from room to room, seemingly remembering the house and all the furniture. It goes on so long that it becomes spooky and a little bit sad. She also has memories of her childhood friend, Helene, who swore blood sisterhood and to "follow her into death." The corpse, by the way, is Catherine.
SPOILERS > > >
So the realtor shuts up the house, then her boyfriend comes over and they decide to screw. They stop when they hear a note on the piano sound [fairly creepy], but the boyfriend, in classic horror film tradition, thinks it's just an animal and doesn't feel like checking it out. He finally does, and Catherine gives him the old fingers-in-the-neck trick that seems to be her M.O. He comes back in and his wounded neck, uh, ejaculates blood all over his girlfriend's face. It is clearly a facial cum-shot from a porn film, just with blood. Yay, dirty, perverted horror! The realtor soon meets Catherine in the flesh, but I don't think there's going to be any real estate deals going down soon.
So Catherine gets in touch with Helene, who comes over immediately. She initially believes that Catherine isn't really dead, swears to stay with and take care of her, and can't help but notice that Catherine feels better and regains her abilities the more blood she ingests. It's not too long before Helene is procuring victims for Catherine, and her little corpse friend is regaining her powers of speech. Meanwhile, Craig has started slinging some snot and pure hatred back in Barbara's direction. She is fascinated by Catherine's image in her photos [remember she took pictures way back when], and even more intrigued when everyone in town says the girl in the photos died two years previously. Craig doesn't find anything curious about that, no, he thinks there must be some rational and mundane explanation, and it seems that marital relations between these two are only getting worse.
So one day Barbara decides to wander into the chateau to look for Catherine [she's invented some story that she's being kept against her will and sees it as her duty to save her], and soon finds her. She takes a bunch of pictures, while Catherine sits and laments the fact that she's dead. Helene finds her and is not very pleased, but Barbara continues as her old arrogant, righteous self. There's a struggle for the camera, but Barbara escapes.
Catherine can now talk, and she's pretty annoyed at Helene, convinced that Helene brought her back from the dead, and is keeping her alive against her will by making her kill people, which she finds repugnant. How nice, a MORAL zombie.
Then all of a sudden we cut to this party which is being rocked by an accordion-based band. Hey, it's 1982 France. It was another time, a simpler place. At this party Barbara and Craig are, of course, bickering, with her going on about how Catherine is being held captive and Craig rolling his eyes and tossing off wonderful dismissals such as "She's just crazy, that's all." She's going to show him the proof but—dang it all, that ONE negative was destroyed! So she decides to pop back around there one more time, and Craig comes along to wait impatiently in the car.
Well, they should have called first. Helene and Catherine are in the middle of a whine-fest. It's kind of funny, because most people on the IMDb complain that ALL that happens is that Catherine and Helene whine and bicker, but these scenes are actually quite limited—they just SEEM to go on forever. Helene went out and procured a pretty little thing for Catherine to munch on, but Catherine is like SO OVER this killing business. So Helene has to do it, sort of like cutting up her food for her. You can tell that this is the last straw in their friendship by the highly symbolic way in which the victim's blood falls on the music box that represents their friendship.
But who should pop round just then, but Barbara? Bad timing—if she didn't WANT a lit torch in the face. Well, it just so happens that Barbara is HIGHLY flammable, because the next time we see her, her entire body is aflame and she's screaming like a banshee. It is NOT to be missed—one of the more flamboyantly silly/fabulous deaths of all time. I particularly love a short reaction shot of Craig, which the filmmaker's took special care to frame behind something flaming, presumably his wife. I can just see the notation from the script: EXT – NIGHT – CRAIG REACTION SHOT – FLAMING WIFE IN FOREGROUND. Craig goes out to help for once in his life, and gets a hatchet in his skull for his efforts.
Then Helene decides that the best solution for their dilemma is one that refers to their vow of many years ago: Catherine should kill and eat Helene. This is accomplished, in a long scene that presents itself as the culmination of their lebso bond, in which Catherine chows down on Helene's neck, arm and fingers. Catherine then screams, and that's the end. I'll bet you $10 Catherine decides to just go about her killing business now that she doesn't have that irritating Helene hanging on her every word.
< < < SPOILERS END
Overall, pretty good. It's got a lot of ridiculousness, highly unlikely circumstances of resurrection [and the whole toxic dump site is completely forgotten after the opening, clearly just there to set the plot in motion], truly obnoxious characters who snipe incessantly, extremely gory but marvelously fake deaths, and realtor sex. What's more, it has a story that has some interesting resonances that elevate this movie above others like it. The scene in which Catherine walks around her old house, having vague memories, is somewhat mysterious and poignant, and then the whole thing of her deep friendship with Helene, who is delighted to have her back, walking corpse or not. Then Catherine's unhappiness as she realizes that she is dead, and that Helene is keeping her alive against her will for selfish reasons. So more than just wanting to show you spooky horror thrills, it has a kind a subtext about friendship and love and loss and wanting to hold on to things that have passed.
Nevertheless, it might strike some as slow, and though it was only a few minutes above 90 minutes, it did seem to drag in parts. It's also, if you don't enter into the spirit of the thing, not very scary and quite talky. But that stuff didn't bother me, I took it for a thoughtful, melancholy horror film, and that what I got, plus the additional amusement of highly flammable peripheral characters.
Sure! It's goofy and fun and gory in a silly way, plus a cast of melancholy that gives the whole thing some depth.