Way back in 2007, French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury exploded onto the horror scene with their home invasion gorefest “Inside” (A l’interieur). In my eyes the film was an absolute horror masterpiece, it was lean, mean and bloody as all heck, but it also had an amazing sense of atmosphere and suspense that was held throughout the entire running time. “Inside” was so good that I consider it one of, if not THE greatest horror film of the past decade. Since that film I have been dying to see what this directing duo would come up with next, and after two failed attempts (the French language film “Snow”, and a sequel to Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” remake), Bustillo and Maury announced that their sophomore effort would be “Livid” (Livide), described in the initial press release as an adult fairytale. Again, this sounded like my kind of film and I eagerly anticipated its arrival, but it has taken three whole years since the film’s announcement for me to finally see the finished product. Did it live up to the expectations I had put on the film over those three years?
The film begins with Lucie being picked up by Mrs. Wilson as she embarks on her first day as a trainee in-house caregiver. She will be assisting Mrs. Wilson with all of her patients and during the day she meets the people she will be looking after. Immediately it is obvious that Lucie has a caring nature and that Mrs. Wilson treats the patients with little respect and serious disdain. Towards the end of the day, the two go to visit Mrs. Jessel, a very old woman who lives in her house stuck in a coma, waiting for the day she finally dies. She regularly needs blood transfusions even though she has no chance of ever awakening from her coma. Mrs. Wilson explains that because she is very rich, and the rich seem to get what they want, her last wish was that she wanted to die in her own home rather than in a hospital. Mrs. Jessel used to be a world famous ballet teacher, and students would visit from all over the globe just to be taught her mastery of the craft. Sadly she only had one daughter of her own, who was born deaf and is long since dead. With no family or life of her own, Mrs. Jessel is basically just waiting to die. However, Mrs. Wilson also explains that there is a rumor that her entire fortune is hidden somewhere within the spooky mansion she lives in. She also admits that she has searched for it herself and has yet to find anything.
Following her days work, Lucie reiterates the story Mrs. Wilson told her to her deadbeat boyfriend William. Immediately seeing a way out of his worthless and dead-end life, William convinces Lucie and his best friend Ben to break into Mrs. Jessel’s house and to steal her fortune. However as soon as they enter the dark and scary house, it becomes very obvious that Mrs. Jessel and her occupancy are not all they seem, and the three friends find themselves in terrible danger of losing their lives.
For the first hour of “Livid” the film moves at a very deliberate pace, creating a dark and scary atmosphere, and never rushing to get to the horror of the film. Suspense is continually built and increased upon, and to me this is when the film is at its most successful. Too often these days, horror films go straight for the jugular without developing the characters properly or fleshing out the main story, so the slow opening and set-up of “Livid” was a welcome sight. This turns out to be a double-edged sword though as unfortunately the characters we are introduced to are highly unlikable, especially William who comes across as a right asshole, so being witness to the actions of these people isn’t the most fun you will have at a cinema. I’m not sure if he was directed in this way, but the performance from Felix Moati as William just grated on my nerves right from the get-go. The character was so just so selfish and aggressively so too. If you didn’t do what he wanted, he would get agro until you backed down. He was an utterly unappealing character. Lucie, on the other hand, is a delight and without her, “Livid” would have been a chore to sit through. She understands what she is doing is wrong and initially wants nothing to do with it, and is disgusted by the idea, unfortunately her will bends due to the pressure put on her by her peers. The first time I saw Lucie on screen, I thought that Bustillo and Maury obviously had a type of woman they liked because the actress playing her, Chloe Coulloud, looked like a younger version of Beatrice Dalle (who played the antagonist of “Inside”). It turns out that the resemblance was intentional because Dalle shows up briefly as Lucie’s deceased mother.
Once the initial hour is over and the horror kicks in, the film changes dramatically. It increasingly makes less and less sense as the fantastical elements are brought into the film, and I’m sad to say, I think this section needed a lot more work because dramatically the narrative becomes confused here. It becomes obvious here that the film is influenced by the fantasy films of Dario Argento (“Suspiria” in particular), however unlike those films, “Livid” doesn’t flow as well. Even during the weirdest moments of those Argento films, they seem to exist within the film’s internal logic, but with this film I found that scenes just happen because the idea may have seemed cool on paper, but they just felt wrong on screen. Before I go into this further let me say that the images created in this section are just amazing and very dynamic, and from a visual standpoint I thought they were something special, but from a narrative point of view they just didn’t work (as well as they could or should have). The prime example is when Ben disappears into the mirror, it is a good WTF moment for sure, but when this big prism object above him starts spinning and more weird stuff begins, it just felt wrong, as if it didn’t exist in the universe already set up within the film. Again, the following attack is beautifully visual, but it didn’t feel right. (I know I am not explaining this properly, but I do not know how to explain it better).
As stated above, even a blind man could see how visually gifted Bustillo and Maury are and some of the images they come up with are simply outstanding. There is nothing like the sight of a blood soaked ballerina, it is a strangely beautiful image (check out the poster above). The directors have collaborated with the key staff from their previous film again and Marc Thiebault’s production design is the definite highlight of the film. His work on the creepy mansion, both inside and out, helps amazingly in the overall atmosphere of the film. This is not a place you would want to get trapped inside. I loved Anna’s (Mrs. Jessel’s daughter) room, full of the weird taxidermy figures set up as if they were having a tea party, it is absolutely chilling and disturbing (considering this is a child’s room). What I love about Bustillo and Maury is that they are not afraid of the dark, and what I mean by this is if the scene is meant to be dark, that is what it is, there is no blue light bathed over the scene so we, the viewer can see everything. This is a very dark film, and the master of darkness appears to be cinematographer Laurent Bares, who performed the same duties on the equally dark film “The Divide” for fellow countrymen Xavier Gens. The film is full of deep and dark shadows and you are never really sure what you can see which again works wonders for the dread filled atmosphere.
The directing duo’s previous film “Inside” was an absolute bloodbath, so for the gorehounds going into “Livid” expecting more of the same, they are going to be sorely disappointed. Personally I knew this going in, so I was not expecting a retread of “Inside” but it is the quality of the effects that are a little disappointing here. Some of the make-up effects are outstanding (including the film’s goriest moment at the finale), but there are some that almost appear amateurish. One culprit is the make-up on the deceased ballerina, it basically looked like blobs of clay had just been stuck onto her face, and I was very disappointed its look, especially in close-up. However the thing that bugged me the most was the scissors (what is it with these guys and scissors?) that became prominent near the end of the film, never once did they appear to look real, they always looked very flimsy and fake.
Overall, I guess it saddens me to say that “Livid” turned out to be a disappointment. While the initial hour of the film is amazing, it is let down by its uneven final half an hour, and a seriously poor and confused ending. Ironically, the final half an hour has some of the greatest horror images in it that I have seen for a long time, but within the film as a cohesive whole, they just did not work. What I do love about Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury is that it is obvious that both of them are fans of the horror genre, and there are some neat little homages to past films within from “Halloween III: Season Of The Witch” to the heavily influential “Suspiria” (check which ballet school Mrs. Jessel graduated from). While it is a shame that “Livid” is not as successful as I hoped it would be, I respect Bustillo and Maury for at least trying to do something different rather than replicate their initial film “Inside”, and even though I didn’t love the film I look forward to revisiting it in the future and hopefully find some love for it too. Despite this misstep, I think that Bustillo and Maury are going to play a huge role in the future of horror and I cannot wait for what they come up with next.