Take a good look at that picture, and tell me you don’t want to watch this movie. You can’t do it, can you?

Sheitan is a French horror film from 2006. Just seeing the words “French horror film” is usually enough to get me excited nowadays. The “French New Wave of Horror” unofficially kicked off with 2003’s Haute Tension, and has continued since then with such brutal, intense films as Them, Frontier(s), Martyrs and Inside. I could write a whole little mini-essay about how France’s recent social problems led to this rise in aggressive, bloody horror (just as similar issues in the US in the ’70s led to one of our greatest horror periods), but suffice to say France has become one of the leading countries in the genre. Now, I’m sure there are probably a number of stupid, shitty horror films being made over there, too. But, usually, the ones that get enough attention to be released over here have something special about them.

In this case, that something special would be Vincent Cassel, one of France’s biggest stars, and something of a mini-celebrity here thanks to supporting work in films like Black Swan, Eastern Promises and the Ocean’s series. I love Cassel. And that’s why I was excited about Sheitan, as I couldn’t resist the idea of seeing Cassell, who is usually mostly serious in his roles, cut loose as an over-the-top horror villain. And cut loose he does.

The fairly by-the-numbers story involves a group of French youths who meet a girl at a club on Christmas Eve, and agree to accompany her back to her country home for some partying. Once there, they discover that the entire little town where she lives seems to be populated by crazy, possibly inbred weirdos. And the biggest weirdo of them all is Joseph (Cassell), the grounds-keeper at the girl’s home. Joseph takes a strange liking to one of the kids, refusing to leave him alone as his two buddies spend their time trying to get laid.

There’s some pretty good, creepy stuff during this portion of the film, particularly a scene where they all go swimming in the town’s hot spring, and find themselves joined by a bunch of unwelcome guests in the form of more town residents. This scene is actually really tense and uncomfortable to watch, which is exactly how it should be. There’s a few other scenes like that, but this is the best one.

Eventually, however, the weirdness starts to get old and wear out its welcome. That’s the problem with horror films like this, that are trying so hard to be goofy and strange. You can only get away with that for so long before it starts to get old. In Sheitan, it takes WAY too long to get to the actual horror, and the eventual mayhem that we have always known was coming is suddenly just crammed into the last ten or so minutes. And even then, it’s pretty tame by most horror standards (and especially by recent French horror standards), with really only one big gruesome reveal – which, by the way, reminded me a lot of the climaxes of both May and Jeepers Creepers (if you’re familiar with both those films, you can probably figure out what they have in common and now make a good guess as to where Sheitan is heading).

It’s not that I’m automatically bothered when a horror film doesn’t turn out to be a huge bloodbath. But, still, it felt like this movie was building up to a much more explosive and brutal climax than we actually get. In the end, the movie once again chooses weirdness over true horror, which will probably suit some people just fine. But, like I said, by that point I was kind of tired of the movie’s “odd for the sake of being odd” attitude.

Still, I can’t entirely write this movie off, as I think it’s at least worth watching once for A) people who like strange, off-kilter horror films, and B) people who like Vincent Cassel. This is his show, through and through, and he is an absolute blast in it. While watching it, I said maybe this outrageous performance means he’s like the French Nicolas Cage, but now I realize that’s not the case. The problem with Cage is that he has made outrageousness the norm, and in turn led people to forget that he is also capable of strong dramatic work. Cassel, on the other hand, seems wise enough to keep performances like this one to a minimum (like I said, I’ve NEVER seen him so ridiculous before), which makes it seem all the more special and unexpected.

If nothing else, I’d love to show this movie to people who are completely unfamiliar with Cassel, who have never seen any of his other work, and tell them, “hey, you see that guy there? He’s married to Monica Bellucci in real life.” Let them wrap their heads around that one.

This review was originally posted on March 1oth, 2011 on Trevor Likes Movies.

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