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Horsehead-Poster-Alternate

In many ways, writer-director Romain Basset’s feature debut, Horsehead (2014), is as strange a creation as its titular demonic figurehead: both too nonsensical to conform to standard cinematic narratives and not gonzo enough to properly pay homage to the surreal, Italo-gore films that are its obvious influence, the film is lush, visually stunning and stuck in a bit of a no-man’s-land. When the film’s visuals and atmosphere mesh, Basset comes dangerously close to approximating the fever dream insanity of vintage Argento: something like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) jammed sideways into Inferno (1980), if you will. When the film leans hard into actual plot mechanics, however, it tends to collapse into a bit of a chaotic mess, favoring complex backstory over actual emotional impact.

Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux), our plucky heroine, has been plagued by terrible nightmares of a terrifying, horse-headed demon for the majority of her life. After her grandmother Rose (Gala Besson) dies, Jessica returns to her childhood home for the funeral. Like many horror film heroes, Jessica has a difficult history with her stern, disapproving mother, Catelyn (Lucio Fulci mainstay Catriona MacColl), although she gets along great with her cheerful, ultra-supportive step-dad, Jim (Murray Head). Returning to her old stomping grounds for the first time in years, Jessica and her mom immediately get to butting heads, all while Jim and faithful servant, George (Vernon Dobtcheff), try to run interference.

Once she gets “home,” however, Jessica immediately starts to have strange dreams about her grandmother, dreams in which a younger version of Rose frantically looks for some sort of key. A sinister preacher (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) also pops up in her dreams and he seems to be pursuing Rose, for some undisclosed reason: we know he’s evil, however, because he has one of those patented “totally, completely evil” voices…always a handy indicator. She also continues to see the menacing Horsehead, the towering, monstrous presence from her youth that’s pursued her in her slumber for decades.

Using a handy bottle of ether and some of that “take control of your dreams” advice that all the kids on Elm Street receive, Jessica proceeds to explore the phantasmagoric world of her dreams, attempting to figure out the connection between the creepy priest, Horsehead, her grandmother and that damned missing key. Jessica will have to be careful, however: if Horsehead gets a hold of her while she’s dreaming, it might spell the end of her in the “real world,” as well.

Similar to Rob Zombie’s recent The Lords of Salem (2012), Basset’s Horsehead is a very clear nod to the classic ’80s horror fare of Italian gore-maestros like Argento and Fulci: hell, he even casts MacColl, the star of such Fulci standards as City of the Living Dead (1980), House By the Cemetery (1981) and The Beyond (1981), as Jessica’s mother. With its dreamlike atmosphere, brightly colored lighting and emphasis on visuals over logic, it’s pretty easy to draw a through-line straight into the heart of Basset’s little opus. If you’re going to wear your influences on your sleeve, however, there are certainly worse ones you could pick than Argento or Fulci.

When the emphasis stays on the visuals and vibe, Horsehead works remarkably well: cinematographer Vincent Vieillard-Baron, on only his second full-length feature, produces some staggeringly strange, beautiful imagery, much of which is on a par with the best of Luciano Tovoli’s work in films like Suspiria (1977) and Tenebre (1982). The figure of Horsehead is a genuinely creepy image and certain scenes, like Jessica’s climatic battle with the dream demon, approach del Toro and Tarsem Singh’s level of fastidious attention to detail. Horsehead looks consistently great, with a truly cool sense of Gothic grandeur that befits the more fairy-tale-like aspects of the narrative.

Basset gets good work from a dependable cast: it’s always good to see MacColl and she brings quite a bit of edge to her portrayal of Jessica’s troubled mother, while Pointeaux is a likable, (mostly) reasonable protagonist. As befits the film’s spiritual forebears, some of the performances are a little more over-the-top than others: Fu’ad Aït Aattou’s evil priest and Joe Sheridan’s oddly lecherous doctor are pure comic book, while veteran actor Dobtcheff doesn’t get a whole lot to do as the seemingly superfluous butler/caretaker.

In another parallel with the aforementioned Zombie film, however, Basset’s movie starts to unravel whenever we get thrust down into the actual nitty-grit of the plot. To not put too fine a point on it, Horsehead makes very little sense, even when all of the cards have been laid on the table by the film’s conclusion. This, of course, was a pretty common issue with the films that directly influenced Horsehead: no one ever went into a Fulci or Argento film to focus on the plots, most of which only existed as a rough framework to hang numerous setpieces from. The difference, of course, is that both Fulci and Argento seemed perfectly aware of this and were more than happy to play to their strengths: Basset, unfortunately, tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by turning his film into an extremely plot-heavy, if thoroughly surreal, exercise in combining style and substance.

By the time that Jessica figures out what’s happening, the film has become a morass of missing keys, symbolic imagery, musty old “family secrets” and philosophical concepts masquerading as spook-show imagery. Immaculate conception, stillborn twins, abusive fathers and imaginary churches all make an appearance, although it’s all so much nonsense, at least as far as the actual impact on the story goes. By the time that Jessica is advised to “follow the wolf, not the horse,” I found myself more bemused than anything.

One of the odder aspects of Horsehead ends up being the many parallels between the Nightmare on Elm Street series. From Jessica learning to take control of her dreams, to the “sins of the parents” themes, to Catelyn’s attempt to stop Jessica’s lucid dreaming via some sort of “anti-dreaming” drug, there are times when it definitely feels as if Basset (who co-scripted with Karim Chériguène) is actively trying to kickstart his own version of Wes Craven’s little empire: even the final shot seems to set up a direct, more action-packed sequel, which doesn’t sit comfortably with the film’s headier aspirations.

Despite some fundamental problems, however, Horsehead is still an intriguing, if frustrating, film. Whenever the dream sequences are in full force, it’s hard to deny the intoxicating power of Basset’s imagination: like Singh, he knows how to blend the horrific and fantastic in equal measures, often within the same frame. It’s also encouraging to note that he’s taking inspiration from horror’s forefathers but using it to create his own, new mythology: I’ll take that over another remake/reimagining any day of the week.

For his first full-length, Romain Basset shows a tremendous amount of promise: if he’s able to completely jettison his more traditional narrative impulses and just go with the power of his imagery, I have a feeling that he just might be able to get in the same head=space as his Italian horror heroes. Horsehead isn’t quite a thoroughbred but it’s a damn strong runner: that wins races, too.

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