Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Fantastic Film Festival.
Writer-director Mathieu Turi’s debut is a zombie post-apocalypse thriller cum meditation on a romantic relationship, brazenly tied together. Despite heartfelt acting and high production values (on a low budget, no less!), the melodramatic direction, tone-deaf dialogue, predictable plot, and overly intellectual transitions had me checking out about a fourth of the way into this under-ninety-minute effort. Elevated horror Hostile (2017) is not.
Juliette (Brittany Ashworth, acting her heart out) is scavenging food for her home group in a Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) setting when her car flips over, pinning her down, fracturing her shin, and making her prey for roving nocturnal cannibal creatures (Javier Botet). The same Juliette, in interspersed flashbacks, is a New York City junkie who unintentionally attracts Jack (Grégory Fitoussi), a stereotypically rich and handsome French art dealer inexplicably not named Jacques who wins her over by actually caring about her. Juliette’s fight to stay alive till dawn reminds her, at various points, of various points in her relationship with Jack that just happen to be recalled in chronological order, and both plot threads are filled to the brim with clichés. Jack meets his end on a hospital bed after a chemical attack; as for Juliette? Well, let’s just say her past is never really past.
If you’re a fan of horror, this film has one very cheap jump scare and oodles of dread, mostly felt as you await bad things you know will happen come to pass, aided immeasurably by the soundtrack—literally immeasurable: It was so loud I thought my ears would bleed. The monster is also quite unsettling, until you realize that its unpredictable hybrid of indestructibility and very specific weaknesses is a bug, not a feature. And Ashworth puts everything into her physical acting, making her frightful situation come eerily and painfully alive. Alas, the same cannot be said of her romance scenes, in which the maddeningly unflirtatious dialogue limits her performance to a cross between Kristen Stewart (sans neurosis) and Alison Brie (without the humor). Fitoussi holds the same script, of course, but the story doesn’t expect more from him than to look good and act kind, and he gets the job done.
Both plot threads are marred by melodramatic direction: The actors perform for the camera instead of doing what seems natural. This abandoned store seems empty and safe? Take off your outerwear, Juliette, and establish your sex for us. Want us to see your gratitude to Jack for taking you in—battered, bruised, and bleeding—and for washing and cleaning you? Give him a grateful glance, shame and self-loathing and awkward angle be damned! Hear that Jack was caught in the chemical attack? Set your whiskey glass down on its side to show you’re in a rush, but make sure it’s completely still so the camera can get a close-up. Jack dies (not a spoiler)? Collapse to the floor in despair, but slowly so you don’t leave the frame. And so on.
Finally, the big selling point of the film is the intertwining of the narratives, but the links that bridge each cut are too on the nose: same hand gesture, same thoughts, same need for rescue. One cut having to do with a disability does work, but only on a functional, expositional level; in general, the transition editing seems more precious than profound—think Submergence (2018), but as a film school graduation project.
For all that, there’s a single scene that managed to evoke an elemental level of cinematic wonder. No, not the big reveal, which is actually quite obvious when you turn your brain on. (Editor’s note: I’m getting a lot of search traffic asking about the ending, so for the record: Yes, the chemical attack turns Jack into the monster.) I’m talking about the scene right after that, the final flashback, when we finally understand why Juliette didn’t just shut this pestering Frenchman down. It’s a question I was asking myself for a solid hour.