Released in 2007, Xavier Gens’s Frontier(s) belongs to the short-lived subgenre of New French Extremity: think splatter horror with an intellectual bent and bloody shades of Brian Yuzna. Though nowhere near as viscerally warped as Inside or Martyrs, the movie, like those entries, approaches the sanctity of family with sharp implements and even sharper social commentary. It deftly exploits backwoods horror trappings, resembling ’70s-era American horror cinema in its gross weirdo-family set-up and timely politics underpinning the horrific narrative.
Frontier(s) works as a callback to family-oriented horror stories playing out in a rural setting – where nobody can hear you scream. All horror fans are familiar with the Sawyer family’s antics in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What horror fan isn’t emotionally scarred when reminded of Michael Berryman’s thousand-yard stare in The Hills Have Eyes or sickened by the murderous matriarch’s predatory progeny in Mother’s Day? Let’s be honest: Family values in horror leave a lot to be desired, and it complicates matters when the family members have rap sheets longer than Richard Speck. But even up against all these killer clans, it’s in Frontier(s) that you’ll find horror’s most f***** up family.
Gen’s debut sees the director firing on all cylinders with a fast-paced movie full of gore, paranoia weird body horror, and extremity in many scenes. Frontier(s) opens in Paris, rioting and violence have engulfed the capital, and a group of youths from the projects must get out of dodge post-haste following a robbery. The pregnant Jasmine (Karina Testa) makes her getaway with Alex (Aurelian Wiik) after her brother Sami (Adel Bencherif) is shot. In an attempt to evade capture by the police, they follow their accomplices Farid (Chems Dahmani) and Tom (David Saracino) to a remote guesthouse in the French countryside. The group soon realizes the cops chasing them are the least of their worries after they meet the family who own this quaint B&B.
Gilberte (Estelle Lefebure), Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan), and Klaudia (Amelie Daure) are three occupants of this establishment who offer guests the kind of welcome that makes Norman Bates look like the poster boy for tourism and hospitality. A game of cat and mouse ensues with Tom and Farid barely surviving after a car crash leaves them stranded in the mines beneath the building — but they are not alone down there. It turns out they’ve wandered into a modern-day cult of Nazi serial killers. With most of the main characters meeting horrible ends, Jasmine (and her unborn child) are accepted into the family — but she violently resists!
The deeper Gens takes the viewer down this depraved rabbit hole, the crazier the story gets. A haircut scene and a family banquet are two memorably weird sequences. Jasmine proves she is just as capable of inflicting damage and violence as her unhinged hosts. A fight scene with Jasmine finally taking on Gilberte is both action-heavy and wince-inducing. In Frontier(s), the violence serves a purpose; we understand that in this world, it is a direct result of society’s politics. For example, none of the characters do what we expect — a traumatized young girl Eva (Maud Forget) becomes a reluctant ally to Jasmine; Jasmine becomes as monstrous as the people she is fighting and alongside the children in the mines, this adds an odd and poignant dimension to the movie.
In previously mentioned backwoods flicks, questions have always been raised about the “why” of their behavior. Hell, even Marilyn Burns‘s Sally infamously screeches at the Sawyer clan: “What the f*** is wrong with you people?” Okay, so multiple murders, incest, torture, and a litany of other depravities place this clan outside the realms of a normal family unit. Most viewers find it hard to comprehend why Leatherface wears masks made of human skin. That’s fine for Leatherface because he is not meant to be fully understood and that scares people. But what might be even scarier is if we did understand what drives a family of sadists. What makes the family in Frontier(s) so messed up and beyond redemption is the fact that the motivations behind their actions are rooted in the ideology of hatred. In many backwoods horrors, what motivates the monstrosity has never always been presented to the viewer with clarity and often the ambiguity of evil has been diluted by origin stories. It diminishes the power of the beast to have the reasoning for their rampages explained in minute detail.
Viewers often think of evil as an abstract thing, something hard to pin down and explain; but with this family, we witness how segregation, hate, and perversion have contributed to the formation of a truly nasty group. The family is a fantastic and terrifying unit, far more plausible than other horror movie murder families. Gens injects a real-world nastiness into the villains. These people are batshit and criminally insane. And yet, they care about each other and are capable of loving their kin. It may be in their own warped way, but it is also not showy and never delves too deep into the family’s fractured psychology.
Despite our disgust, Gens makes a concerted effort to humanize them. The spine-tingling moments of mutilation are tempered by the astute psychological dissection of the antagonists. The premise is unnervingly realistic: a German soldier evading capture during World War II and opening a business in France veers close to reality with many former Nazi officers slipping beneath the cracks and leading new lives after the war. Gens is looking at the possibility that one of these people continued their depraved legacy over four or five decades.