French horror, like many European ventures into the genre, is riddled with visceral terror, digging deep into ingrained psychological fears to expose a fleshy, vulnerable core. Seeking inspiration from a range of eclectic sources, from the violence of the Grand Guignol to the experimental wonder of Salvador Dalí and Pier Paolo Pasolini, French horror cinema has helped to establish several sub-genres we now appreciate as cornerstones of horror.
Just one of these sub-genres is that of New French Extremity, a category of filmmaking that applies heavy acknowledgement on the depraved reality of the human condition, utilising shocking special effects and extreme violence. James Quandt (who also coined the term) described the New French Extremity movement as, “Bava as much as Bataille, Salò no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement”.
Arguably, this movement emerged from the interest in the visceral terrors of the Grand Guignol, which itself helped inspire one of the most influential short films ever made in Un Chien Andalou, from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Inspiring horror through the 21st century, the film would have a great influence on the very best of French horror cinema.
The 10 best French horror films:
10. Calvaire (Fabrice Du Welz, 1929)
A strange, dark and gothic addition to modern French horror cinema, Calvaire from director and co-writer Fabrice du Welz is a triumph of atmosphere, creating a mounting sense of dread with every scene.
Starring Laurent Lucas and Brigitte Lahaie, Calvaire follows Marc, a travelling entertainer on his way home for Christmas when his van breaks down outside of a strange town with eccentric, sinister inhabitants. An anti-Christmas adventure, the film is shot by Gaspar Noé’s cinematographer for Irréversible, creating an intense joyride of indulgent creativity and terror. For a film that translates into The Ordeal, you can imagine what you’re getting yourself in for.
9. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)
Sandwiching this horror film between the director’s iconic Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, as well as Tess with Nastassja Kinski, The Tenant was released in 1976 to adoring criticism.
Starring Isabelle Adjani, famous for her iconic role in Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, The Tenant from Roman Polanski, follows a bureaucrat who finds himself drawn into a rabbit hole of paranoia on the streets of Paris. A dark, intense and thrilling drama, The Tenant is based on the novel of the same name from author Roland Topor and details a creeping analysis of the decay of mental health in the face of great danger.
8. Amer (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2009)
A modern French horror classic, Amer stars Cassandra Forêt, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud and Marie Bos as three different iterations of protagonist Ana, who has been plagued by evil her whole life.
As a rebellious child, Ana was tormented by a shadowy black figure who caused significant distress, leading to the problem affecting her later life where the ethereal figure begins to curse her once more. Inspired by the likes of Luis Buñuel, Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Amer is suffused with dreams, nightmares and pure art-house terror, providing a highly enjoyable atmospheric rollercoaster for audiences.
7. Inside (Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury – 2007)
Inside is a truly scary film that questions the relevance of new life in this messed up world. It stars Béatrice Dalle as a mysterious home invader who appears determined to extract an unborn baby from a pregnant mother.
Inspired by slasher classics like Halloween, Inside is an intense investigation of the relationship between trauma and violence that, as part of the New Extremity movement, takes graphic horror to new levels. Co-director Julien Maury admitted, “Villains in movies are always the more interesting characters for us. We love the bad guys. In the end with Inside we tried to say that Béatrice is not just a boogie woman coming to stab everyone, that she is just a woman broken by life. It’s just a sad story and human drama.”
6. Climax (Gaspar Noé, 2018)
Horror spans many subjective definitions and whilst Climax may not adhere to traditional blood-splattering themes, the environment of hopelessness and dread it creates is truly impressive.
With a background in new French extremity, Gaspar Noé brings similar themes of futility to this strange image of a psychedelic hell. Climax is the definition of a bad trip, following a group of energetic, drug-fuelled dance students to a world of psychological torment. Punctuated with a dark, intense soundtrack, Gaspar Noé continues in his ability to seize the attention of his audiences with provocative and stunning idiosyncratic filmmaking.
5. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)
The most infamous film of the French New Extremity movement, Martyrs brings untold nastiness to the mainstream fold, encased within a story that is inarguably original and strangely insightful.
Starting off as a good old revenge thriller, Martyrs quickly descends into something far more deprived at around the halfway mark once a girl seeking payback for her disturbing childhood finds herself in an inescapable trap. A truly unique and remarkable narrative turn, Martyrs does something that few provocative horrors ever dare to do, contextualising its madness within a surprisingly contemplative ending.
4. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
From Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of The Raven and The Wages of Fear, comes Les Diaboliques, a horror-thriller that would have a significant impact on the shape of 20th-century cinema.
Telling the tale of a wife and mistress of a loathed school principal who decides upon killing him, Les Diaboliques is riddled with suspense as it cranks towards its final conclusion. Included on Stephen King’s list of his favourite ever films, the author told Criterion that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was a “suspense-horror masterpiece”, even adding the director, “out-Hitchcocked Hitchcock”.
3. Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)
Equal parts horror and dark coming-of-age drama, Raw is a disturbing vision of the adolescent struggle as it follows a girl newly enrolled in veterinary college who develops a cannibalistic taste.
Directed by the recent Palme d’Or winner for Titane, Julia Ducournau, Raw is a surprising film in that, despite featuring such animalistic gore, the main takeaway at the film’s conclusion is its deft touch and insightful approach to adolescence, with little to no indulgence in excess. At its very best, Raw is a smart and enthralling take on growing up with shades of horror sprinkled on top to well contextualise the horrors of change.
2. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)
A visually stunning 1980s masterpiece, Possession celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2021 and looks as though it could quite easily exist in the landscape of contemporary psychological horror.
Directed by Andrzej Żuławski and starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession echoes with the inspiration of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion in its depiction of psychological breakdown, following the divorce of Anna (Adjani) and Mark (Neill) and the sinister fallout of the relationship. A classic of 1980s horror that defied the popular slasher zeitgeist, Possession was fuelled by the horror innovations of David Cronenberg’s The Brood and David Lynch’s Eraserhead to create something entirely new.
1. Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)
Inspiring countless remakes and reimaginings including Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In and Holy Motors from Leos Carax, Georges Franju’s iconic French horror film is a classic of European horror.
Detailing the story of a surgeon who causes an accident that leaves his daughter disfigured, the tale takes a dark turn when the doctor tries to create a new face for the young girl, spiralling into a moral tale of vanity and parental responsibility. A favourite of director Guillermo del Toro, Eyes Without a Face isn’t a terrifying film, though it is a deeply unsettling one, asking the audience to consider the mentality of an individual trapped behind a mask, saved and held captive by their father.