by Jason Coffman
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For the last two years, After Dark Films has hosted a horror film “festival” called “8 Films to Die For,” showcasing eight independent and/or foreign films over the course of a weekend in theaters across the US. Last year, Xavier Gens’s Frontier(s) was originally announced as part of the lineup for the fest but was allegedly “banned” from participation—the film was unsurprisingly given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. So, After Dark decided on an unusual release for the film apart from the “horrorfest.” It was released in a small handful of theaters on Friday, May 9th, and released on DVD the following Tuesday, May 13th. This gave time for more buzz to build and added to the film’s reputation for being another in an increasingly gruesome line of French horror films. Now that it’s finally out here, though, we can see it for what it really is: yet another take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only this time with back-country Nazis instead of the usual inbred monsters.
Frontier(s) opens with its heroine Yasmine (Karina Testa) on the run with her wounded brother Sami (Adel Bencherif) after a bank robbery has gone awry. They’re trying to make their way to a meeting point with Yasmine’s ex-boyfriend Alex (Aurelien Wiik) and the other two thieves Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani). These opening scenes take place during intense rioting in Paris following the election of an extreme right-wing president, although whether the robbery is a reaction to this or whether the riots just provided a good opportunity to rob a bank is never addressed. Both groups finally meet only to split up again, with Tom and Farid taking the money out of the city and heading for the border and Yasmine and Alex taking Sami to the hospital. Unfortunately, Tom and Farid choose to stay in a very unfriendly hostel, eventually leading all of the young criminals to confront the depraved, inbred Von Geisler clan: a Nazi officer and his family hiding out deep in the French countryside.
From this point on, Frontier(s) is extremely familiar. This will hardly be a spoiler to anyone who has seen any similar films: The young people meet horrible deaths at the hands of their captors one at a time, with only Yasmine spared similar treatment so she can be tortured some more before the film is over. The only real difference between Frontier(s) and any other take on the “crazy hillbilly” subgenre is the Nazi imagery and the film’s slick presentation. Gens is without question a stylish director (it’s no surprise this film led to his being hired for the Hollywood Hitman adaptation), but his suggestions that the film are about anything other than gory shock and brutal violence with high production values feel less than justified. The fear of a nation run by an extreme right-wing president is definitely valid given France’s recent political history, but there is little to tie that concept to the film’s formulaic genre story.
However, hype and nods to political commentary aside, Frontier(s) is a pretty effective horror film. The villains are extremely creepy, and one member of the Von Geisler family, Eva (Maud Forget), compels an unsettling sympathy. The performances otherwise are pretty standard across the board for this type of film, although Karina Testa is particularly convincing as the traumatized Yasmine, giving the film a strong center character to anchor the atrocities. The gore effects are excellent and convincing, although in the same year as the terrifying Inside (A L’interieur) they’re not as shocking as they probably would have been otherwise. The film’s nearly fanatical adherence to the structure of its predecessors actually works in its favor, as opposed to the awkward post-modern “twist” of the very similar High Tension, the film widely regarded as the kick-off of the current French horror boom. Hardcore horror fans will find a lot to like about Frontier(s), but anyone going in expecting another groundbreaking French horror film will likely be disappointed. In the case of Frontier(s), the only thing really innovative about it was its US distribution plan.
Frontier(s) was released on DVD 13 May. The disc has no extra features aside from trailers for other After Dark/Lionsgate films, including a trailer for High Tension. Strangely, the trailer is dubbed in English.
Jason Coffman is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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