French first-time feature director Alexandre Aja's blood-drenched, back-to-basics slasher film opens with a battered young woman in a hospital gown, muttering "I will never let anything come between us again" under her breath like a desperate mantra. The red light of a video camera interrupts her reverie: "Is it recording?" she asks, and plunges into the nightmarish events that brought her to her bare hospital room.
Needing to cram for exams, tomboyish Marie (Cecile de France) and hard-partying Alex (Maiwenn le Besco), college classmates and close friends, decide to study at the isolated farmhouse where Alex's parents live. There's nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one to distract them from their work except the monstrous serial murderer (I STAND ALONE's Philippe Nahon) who comes to the door the night the girls arrive. He brutally kills Alex's parents (Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea), her little brother (Marco Claudiu Pascu) and even the family dog. Thinking quickly, Marie erases every trace of her presence from the guest room — drying off the sink, making the bed, stashing her weekend bag out of sight — and waits out the slaughter. The phone lines have been cut, there are no neighbors and Alex lies gagged and hog-tied in the back of the killer's rusted, blood-smeared van, her photo already added to the chilling montage of girl's faces decorating the sun visor. But resourceful Marie refuses to abandon Alex to her awful fate: "Those other girls were alone," she whispers. "There are two of us."
The first two thirds of the screenplay by Aja and cowriter Gregory Levasseur is a relentless exercise in bare-bones nastiness, even if it is so indebted to veteran horror novelist Dean Koontz's Intensity that it verges on the actionable. Unfortunately, they squander their white-knuckle goodwill on an 11th-hour about-face so preposterous it undermines everything that preceded it (though in its defense, it also sets up a stunning final shot). The US theatrical release was shorn of a little gore and features a partial-dubbing strategy predicated on making Alex and her family Americans living in France; their dialogue is dubbed into English by American actors, while Cecile de France dubs her own (lightly accented) lines when speaking with them and delivers the rest of her dialogue in the original French. It's tolerable as a compromise intended to placate foreign language-phobic gorehounds without resorting to a top-to-bottom dub, particularly since the film isn't dialogue-heavy — anguished screams are a universal language. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh