On Christmas Eve, in an isolated house (understandably free of decorations), the extremely pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is menaced by an lady maniac (Béatrice Dalle) who wants to cut the baby out of her womb. It used to be that (Georges Franju aside) French cinema was too wussified to produce all-out horror movies, and its few exercises in the genre (like Jean Rollin’s vampire films) were more interested in eroticism and surrealism than nastiness and shock. In recent years, ruthless efforts like Irreversible, Haute Tension, The Horde and Martyrs have changed that. If anything, these could do with a whiff of the fantastique to go with the gruelling, sustained abuse of (usually) women — though most French roughies still feel obliged to include philosophical underpinnings which might or might not justify the thuggish brutalism. Once upon a time, the archetypal film Frenchman was Maurice Chevalier or Jean Gabin – now it’s Philippe Nahon, who (unusually) isn’t in this exercise in girl-on-girl ultra-gore from the writer-director team of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (notice how many French horrors are made by two blokes reinforcing each other’s decisions). Designed to provoke extreme responses, Inside is conceptually among the most horrific movies ever made. In execution, it surprisingly lets the audience off the suspense hook to go for CGI-assisted ketchup-sloshing in the almost cheerful Herschell Gordon Lewis manner rather than the nerve-stretching, you-can’t-watch-this approach of, say, Gaspar Noé.
It opens inside a womb, with a big CGI foetus whiplashed in what turns out to be a car crash. Sarah, a news photographer, is bloodied but alive at the wheel, next to her just-killed husband. Some months later, on the point of parturition, Sarah is a glum, unwilling mother-to-be. Either she’s suffering from premature post-natal depression or is just plain rude to her chic mother (Nathalie Roussel) and helpful boss (François-Régis Marchasson) as she insists on spending the night before she’s due to check into hospital alone and brooding in her house. We get few clues as to what she was like before the accident, but Sarah is such a snotty bitch it’s hard to care about her (or, even, her unborn kid). Nevertheless, the next stretch of the film, in the mode of Ils or The Strangers, is effectively terrifying as la femme (seen first as a shadow-faced outline) comes to the door and makes threats, then isn’t around when the police respond to Sarah’s distress call. Sarah develops photographs and sees Dalle’s strong, staring face spying on her and, in a creepy oh-my-God-she’s-in-the-house moment, la femme looms briefly out of shadow and fades away again unnoticed as Sarah naps. Given that it’s not clear how she got into the house, it’s even possible that the witchy woman, who wears a long black antique dress with big sleeves all the better for hiding weapons in and has a wicked queen fall of dark hair, is some sort of spectre, but the film then segues into extremely physical stuff which goes against that reading. Using domestic tools like dressmakers’ scissors and knitting needles, la femme attacks, and is on the point of cutting open Sarah’s belly when the first of many visitors shows up at the house and quietly intense creepiness turns into gory farce.
For a while, crossed wires make for unsettling scenes: the boss arrives while a face-gashed Sarah is upstairs locked in the bathroom and mistakes the psycho for Sarah’s mother – and even begins to flirt, until the real mother arrives and embarrassment turns to horror as both realise this is the stalker Sandra has complained about. Sarah mistakenly kills her own mother – incidents like this have been commonplace in horror since The Descent, though the first version I can remember is in the otherwise rubbishy Don’t Go in the Woods Alone – but barely has time to feel sorry about this since more folks have to be bloodily done away with. Several teams of paramedics and cops show up, with a handcuffed kid (Aymen Saïdi) arrested at a riot hauled in too, and la femme turns Terminator, littering the home with mutilated corpses. There’s ingenuity in the variety of atrocity, with heads blown apart by gunshots, the kid cuffed to a deadweight corpse, a blinded cop lashing out to batter the wrong woman, Sarah getting her hand pinned to a door by the scissors and a general splattering of red, red gore all over the white furnishings. In another context, incidents like a pregnant woman being repeatedly hit in the stomach with a truncheon would be unforgivably horrible – and, in this context, plenty of folks will walk out anyway. But the emphasis on effects and the way characters take appalling injuries but keep on fighting smacks of horror film convention rather than life, and so the film turns into just another gore-fest.
Late in the day, la femme reveals she was in the other car in the accident and wants Sarah’s baby to replace the one she lost – but, again, we get no clues as to who’s fault the accident was, whether la femme has a husband around, or even why the maniac thinks the best way to get redress is to perform an impromptu caesarian section on the unwilling mother (presumably, at the risk of the baby’s life) rather than simply to kidnap the kid after its safely born (of course, that would be a different film – less horrible, but probably scarier). Sarah uses a rigged-up aerosol flamethrower to burn off la femme’s face, which makes her a Freddy-like apparition with a Bride-of-Dr Phibes look, but the monster woman seems to turn as she helps her victim go into labour on the stairs, then reaches for her trusty scissors to perform a hideous special effects operation to set up the last shock-goth pietà image.
In all probability, this is as gruesome as cinema can get – but it’s not the endurance test it might have been if it kept all the interlopers out of the picture and focused solely on the antagonists. Dalle makes a wonderfully brutal hard-faced witch (she may be the scariest female monster ever) and Paradis is credibly distressed, but too much about these women is withheld from us. Inside ought to be the most upsetting movie ever made, but somehow it’s inappropriately entertaining in the Christians-to-the-lions mode of the video nasties. Of course, it’s the inheritor of a major French horror tradition; the combination of special effects splatter, shrieking melodrama and mad morality would have made Inside an ideal main attraction at the Theatre de Grand Guignol.