“Youthful and irreverent party animals go on ill-advised road trip and encounter a preternatural evil” isn’t the newest plotline in horror history. Nor is, “It’s Christmas time, and the devil’s havin’ a baby.” French horror film Sheitan, however, manages to take these cliché plotlines and use them as the foundation on which to build an often genuinely discomfiting film, filled with hip youth culture signifiers. The first feature film created by artists’ collective Kourtrajme, Sheitan‘s stylized sheen and black sense of humor create an atmosphere filled with imagery that’s not-quite-surreal, but not-quite-right. The story unravels as it unfolds, to the extent that you’re not certain of the significance of some of the more memorable creepiness. However, the scene-for-scene weirdness conveys nicely a madcap world of ambiguously incestuous, devil-worshipping hillbillies awaiting the arrival of smarmy, sex-crazed hipsters to terrify.
Bart (Olivier Bartélémy) is a drunken and nearly insufferable asshole. He finds himself at a hip dance club with his two ever-so-slightly more tolerable friends, on Christmas Eve of all evenings, in an ill-fated quest to get laid. While a turntabilist (wearing a Kourtrajme shirt) spins and scratches, Bart swaggers his way into an alcohol soaked brawl that ends, predictably, with a beer bottle to the side of his head. He meets up with his friends, Thai (Nico Le Phat Tan) and Ladj (Ladj Ly), outside. They are joined by their respective objects of intended conquest, Yasmine (Leïla Bekhti) and the almost sinisterly beautiful Eve (Roxane Mesquida). The five embark on an impromptu journey to Eve’s farmhouse out in the French hinterlands.
In a film that derives its scares mainly from things that don’t look quite right, Vincent Cassel a fantastic job of looking all wrong. As Joseph, the devil-worshipping farmhand, he doesn’t seem to blink. Part Igor from Young Frankenstein, part lumbering redneck monster, he’s situated perfectly on the nexus where goofy meets creepy. His creepiness is bolstered by his overly-friendly interest in Bart, who clearly hates him and whom he continually refers to as “Mark.” Joseph uses racial slurs indiscriminately, milks goats enthusiastically, and comes off like the kind of guy who is clearly fomenting the birth of some ancient evil into the world.
The antics in Eve’s childhood home (which is filled with a telling amount of creepy dolls) continue to take turns for the bizarre. The three guys remain undeterred in their efforts to seal the deal by the introduction of characters that wouldn’t be out of place playing banjos in Deliverance, and Joseph’s daisy-duke sporting niece Jeanne (Julie-Marie Parmentier), who laughs maniacally at everything and tears out a gigantic piece of Bart’s scalp. This is after she’s already licked his face, grabbed his crotch, and molested his dog.
The film’s final move into the world of swirling, hyperventilating shock cinema begins with the entire party discussing religion over a meal of unappetizingly greasy goat meat. Most of the shocks from there on out are chilling but unexplained, almost as if the best bits of previous drafts of the script were left to dangle—dangle like the presumably demonic fetus expelled from Joseph’s wife (a character inexplicably introduced in the last quarter of the film) dangles by its grody umbilical cord. Chase scenes, screams, and beatings between former partygoers and their nefarious hosts abound.
An unwieldy story doesn’t compromise Sheitan‘s odd stylishness, though, nor its eroticism, which occurs in a degree that you’d be hard pressed to find in a stateside devil worship film, let alone your average “teens in the woods getting butchered” flick. The sex scene involving Thai, Bart, and Eve, despite the two fellows’ groanworthily crass musings on the female anatomy, end up looking like genuine soft-core, with a degree of comfort that’s almost surprising given the fact that, as the DVD “Making of Sheitan” feature reveals, this was the first real acting experience for most of the people involved.
The DVD features, though minimal, are hugely enlightening for a non-French audience as to the significance of Kourtrajme as a collective of artists. Steeped in French hip-hop and graffiti culture, they went as far as to invent a hardcore rap parody act just for the movie. The “Making of” features Vince Cassel retelling how he caught up with the collective and got involved with the film, and details the acting lessons of the collective members who comprise the cast.
A final dream sequence filled with haunting hospital sterility, and a grisly real-life parallel narrative, shows both the script’s biggest weakness and the director’s biggest strength. Kim Chapiron’s talent for creating atmosphere with flickering lights and quick cuts leads to an ending that’s quite pleasingly unsettling aesthetically (save the appearance of a token midget and a goat on a gurney that kind of oversells the demonic overtones), but story-wise, a little unfulfilling. As a whole, Sheitan not only makes tried-and-true horror clichés look hip, arty and elegant, it succeeds in making them look memorably weird.