Stop the Interwebs! In fact, just drop what you’re doing for the next 81 minutes, crack a cold one, and summon The Pack from your Netflix netherworld. Don’t think! Just watch, because it’s a gem, a Horrificflicks revelation.
The Pack, a French-dubbed rural nightmare, is quite simply the most finely rendered horror film I’ve seen in a long, long time, at least since Neil Marshall’s The Descent. It’s successful in every sense: Original yet referential; gory but restrained; funny but not goofy, and it’s not horror lite, either.
It’s chock-a-block with cringe-inducing scenes, but the delicious jolt of shock doesn’t get washed away in a tedious “pain for the sake of watching pain” tidal wave. It’s too artfully evocative (it’s a beautifully shot movie) and carefully orchestrated to be mere torture porn, but it is relentless—like a dream that keeps going from bad to worse.
Final (Only?) Girl Charlotte Massott (the gutsy and striking Émilie Dequenne), is driving through uncharacteristically blighted French countryside, cranking speed metal, and smoking. Some bikers have been on her ass, hassling her for a while, so she decides to pick up Max (Benjamin Biolay), a hitchhiker who is perhaps a touch less sinister than the bikers she’s trying to avoid. She pulls up and says, “If you pull out your dick, I’ll hammer you!” With a stone impassive face that he wears for the entire movie, Max replies, “It’s too cold anyway.” (Practically a Truffaut opening!)
Evidently Charlotte is a remarkably trusting soul, because she takes a catnap while Max (whom she’s known for about 6 minutes) drives. When she wakes up, they’ve stopped at a ramshackle backwoods saloon/gas station/arcade, run by massive Madame La Speck (Yolande Moreau, whose maternal, Kathy Bates-like performance is terrific). At this point, the wheels come off for Charlotte and everything gets real weird and bleak, real quick.
A true horrorphile will be happier than a puppy in puke spotting subtle and shady references to Psycho (“Oh, Mother!”), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (horrible hillbillies); Night of the Living Dead (flesh-eating, blood-sucking stumbling humanoids); and Pumpkinhead (farm setting, hayseed occultism, genuinely frightening beastie[s], lots of shots of windmills), not too mention every variation of Why Strangers Passing Through Blighted Lonely Territory Should Never Pick Up Hitchhikers, Much Less Go To Their Lair.
Writer-director Franck Richard’s The Pack boasts so many well-chosen fiendish delights, that I could sit here all day singling out its virtues. Instead, I’ll just point out a couple:
It’s a real shock when the monsters arrive. They don’t look stock or schlocky. I would compare them favorably to something dreamed up by Guillermo Del Toro.
The acting is strong across the board, including Phillippe Nahon, a Charles Durning lookalike who plays a Columbo-ish cop, and wears a shirt that reads “I Fuck On The First Date” throughout the film.
The action gets progressively grimmer, but Richard doesn’t dwell overly long on the suffering. There is a “circle of life” at work here that’s hideous in its organic inevitability. Make no mistake, no one will be disappointed with their level of discomfort.
Even so, The Pack never panders; it’s never sensational and garish for its own sake. Rather it has a soupçon of Tim Burton’s fairy-tale-gone-horribly-wrong sensibility, combined with Sam Raimi’s quick, decisive cuts. And the gruesome proceedings are tastefully seasoned with odd, welcome interludes of humor.
If I really had to compare The Pack to another film, it would be Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven: It’s genre filmmaking utilized to its full potential. It’s a familiar template that Richard is working from, but he raises the bar on quality and originality to the ceiling. I kept thinking I knew what was going on, because I’ve seen these stranded-motorist scenarios in hundreds of movies. But I was always surprised by something far stranger than I was expecting.
I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but instead, Richard kicked my ass with it. To my fellow fans hungry for a quality horror experience, all I can add is, go and enjoy. Heck, I may watch it again. What’s 81 minutes on a Sunday?