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First Look Review - HORSEHEAD

Plagued by sexualised nightmares, a young woman returns home for her grandmother's funeral.


Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Romain Basset

Starring: Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux, Catriona MacColl, Murray Head, Philippe Nahon



"Horsehead is a dreamy film that invokes the sweet sour tang of nightmares. And if the film is not quite thoroughbred, then it’s still certainly worth a punt."


Immediately grazing in the sort of sybaritic atmosphere that will come to define it, Romain Basset’s Horsehead opens in a sumptuous candle lit space, in a room that could only accurately be described as a boudoir. Amongst the shadows and the silken curtains, a woman lies half naked upon a bed made of thick blankets and hefty ropes. The young woman writhes slightly, and we are unsure if her squirms are due to fear or arousal, or even a bit of both. And then, poking its unseemly bonce through the drapes, a terrible figure with a horse’s head and witchy fingers clutching a thick blade appears, and, following closely, another woman, this one’s eyes bound with a black sash; the horsehead plunges the knife into the bound woman’s stomach, causing treacle-like blood to pour from her shocked mouth, while the woman on the bed gasps in excited dread.
Well, there’s something you don’t see every day. Unless, of course, you are Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux), the lead character of Horsehead, that is, who is plagued by such recurring dreams of horse head figures and weird sexualised violence. What is the root of these equine-themed terrors, these literal night-mares? Well, we can hazard an early guess that somewhere along the line, Jessica’s family will be involved, who are, it is fair to say, a very odd bunch. At the start of Horsehead, Jessica discovers that her grandmother has died, and when Jessica returns to the homestead, her cold mother (horror icon Catriona MacColl), along with Jessica’s stepdad and a gruff groundsman, expect her to spend the evening in the room next to the dead woman. Welcome home! But as Jessica sleeps, the boundaries between past and present, real and illusory, sensually blur, and the sordid mysteries that outline Jessica’s past are gradually revealed in dreamy tableaus of violence.
With its colour scheme of burnt honey and its gorgeous Indrien setting, Horsehead is certainly a fine filly, and has to be a contender for best looking horror film of the year. In real life, we all know how boring it is to listen to other people’s dreams, but in Horsehead, the fantasy sequences are filmed with such perverse luxury that the viewer is completely riveted throughout. It reminded me of the convincing oddness of Bernard Rose’s wonderful Paperhouse, in the sense that Horsehead also creates a dream world that seems instantly tangible, and eerily recognisable. Although, the dreamscape here is a world away from the crayoned gothic of Rose’s film: in Horsehead the atmosphere is voluptuous, with an unsettling perversity glowing throughout these scenes, as if lit by the leering ghost of Jess Franco itself to imbue a carnal blend of beauty and horror. Horsehead both seduces and shocks, sometimes at once; from lovely close ups of Miss Pointeaux’s face, as fresh and open as sunlight, the camera shudders shockingly to Jessica’s rotting grandmother, turning to camera and blocking the light with her abject menace - yikes!
He’s read his Clive Barker, has Basset, and his Angela Carter too; the dream scenes manage that trick of infusing items and happenstance with suggestive significance, and artsy relevance. And if there is a problem with Horsehead, it is that the bits in between the dreams are slightly dull in comparison, do little to advance the plot, and feel like restless pauses in which we wait for the next sex-horror phantasmagoria. So we see Jessica outside, checking out some church that may be involved in the mystery, the camera absurdly filming her as if she’s in a baroque perfume advert, with lilting hair and bleachy sun, or we see her as she pointlessly rifles through the family’s ancient papers in a chiaroscuro study. As a stylist, Basset (and a mention must go to d.o.p. Vincent Vieillard-Baron, too) excels; but as the film’s character based scenes show (all clumsy exposition and absurdly portentous dialogue), visualisation, not storytelling, is his major strength (there is also a disappointing propensity for the otherwise carefully maintained eroticism to slip into cheap ogling - Jessica must end up taking about three baths in the film…).
Worrying about plot cohesion in this movie, however, is akin to looking a gift horse in the mouth; this is of the European school of spectacle, of Argento and MacColl’s old mucker, Fulci. Horsehead is a dreamy film that invokes the sweet sour tang of nightmares, whose raison d’etre is atmosphere; a luxuriously dark and sensual sensation that goes the distance. And if the film is not quite thoroughbred, then it’s still certainly worth a punt.



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