France. Directed by Romain Basset, 2014. Starring Lili-Fleur Pointeaux, Catriona MacColl, Murray Head, Gala Besson, Fu’ad Aït Attou, Vernon Dobtcheff. 89 minutes.
It’s funny how coincidence often links the movies I review. For example, there was the week I reviewed Frank and Nightcrawler (each starring a Gyllenhaal sibling); I didn’t mean to do that. Here’s another example: in the last couple of weeks I’ve reviewed We Are Still Here (an homage to Lucio Fulci) for this site and The Nightmare (a documentary about nightmares) for Cinema Axis. Next up on the docket: Horsehead, a horror movie about nightmares with a visual aesthetic occasionally cribbed from Italian horror, and starring a member of Fulci’s early-’80s rep.
So here’s the deal: Lili-Fleur Pointeaux plays Jessica, a young woman returning home to visit her estranged family in the wake of her grandmother’s death. Relations with her mother Caitlyn (Catriona MacColl) remain strained, her dealings with her stepfather Jim (Murray Head) and family servant George (Vernon Dobtcheff). Jessica has always suffered from vivid nightmares, but a particular recurring dream of being menaced by a horse-headed monster takes on more meaning in her family home, and points to secrets long repressed. But her oneiric explorations take their toll on her body and mind.
Director and co-writer Romain Basset deals heavily with Jungian theory and other forms of symbolism in Horsehead: in addition to the titular monster, there’s a scary priest who talks with a voice similar to Pinhead’s, a bloody figure apparently meant to be the young version of Jessica’s grandmother, and more wolves than the first couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Most of the time, Basset uses these symbols to communicate the story clearly; you should have no problem working out what’s happening if you’re paying attention.
Basset’s visual aesthetic is gorgeous and lush, borrowing heavily from the giallo color palette without going too far down a retro path. When combined with the film’s dark, creepy eroticism, Horsehead occasionally feels like a Cattet/Forzani production with the ostentatiousness dialed back a couple notches. Basset does fall down the rabbit-hole a couple of times, delivering too much pretty symbolism for its own sake–particularly at the climax, which he drags out about five to ten minutes longer than needed. But most of the time, it works, and you can either play along with the puzzle-solving or lose yourself in the visuals, depending on your mood.
Two strong supporting performances anchor the film’s exploration of dream imagery. Caitlyn is a complex character whose motives might be hard to understand or sympathize with, but MacColl (Fulci’s muse for the “Gates of Hell” trilogy) does a great job of balancing the character’s love for her daughter with a just as strong resentment towards her. George’s role in the plot leaves little concrete for him to do other than exposit, but Dobtcheff’s performance adds much to the character that remains unsaid.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jessica’s strongest relationship is with Jim, and Pointeaux and Head have a great father/daughter chemistry with each other. Overall, Pointeaux makes for an engaging protagonist during the dream sequences, when she’s on her own, but she’s not quite in the same class as MacColl and Dobtcheff in her scenes with them. (On the other hand, they’re brilliant and she’s still young, so it’s quite understandable.)
To bottom-line it, Horsehead is an enjoyable genre offering that should delight fans of a more thoughtful, more arty approach to the genre.