Color, 2014, 96m.
Directed by Romain Basset
Starring Catriona MacColl, Lily-Fleur Pointeaux, Murray Head, Gala Besson, Fu'ad Ait Aatou, Vernon Dobtcheff
Artsploitation ( Blu-ray) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
As visually arresting as any horror film in recent memory, the French-financed Horsehead belongs to the strain of hybrids between art house and classic European gothic shockers most prominently featured internationally with titles like Livide, Amer, and The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears. Though it deals heavily in dream states, this one is also more linear and accessible than some of its peers (relatively speaking) as it balances its avalanche of stunning images with an engrossing story about a young woman coming to terms with some particularly nasty family secrets.
After a particularly horrific nightmare involving a red-curtained room and a monstrous man with claws and the head of a horse, young Jessica (Pointeaux) gets a call from her estranged mother, Catelyn (MacColl), to come home for the funeral of her grandmother. Upon arrival Jessica is put in the room next to her grandmother's body (of course) and spends an uncomfortable evening eating dinner with Catelyn and her husband, Jim (Head), followed by another night of upsetting dreams. A student of the therapeutic uses of dreams, Jessica realizes these visions may be connected to her grandmother and, thanks to a little self-training and the liberal use of ether, manages to reach her relative in the dream realm where she sees a younger form of her grandmother hunting for a key and offering sinister, mysterious advice about a wolf, a cardinal, and a horse. Over the following days Jessica plunges further into the world of her nightmares, much to the alarm of her mother, as it becomes even more obvious that a terrible force is operating in both their past and present.
On a certain level you could watch this as an arty spin on A Nightmare on Elm Street with a heroine battling forces as physically threatening as anything in the real world, or perhaps Pan's Labyrinth would be an appropriate jumping-off point, too. Director Basset does a skillful job of delivering one jaw-dropping shot after another with surreal sights that seem to be pulled directly from the subconscious, but it's anchored solidly by a committed central performance by Pointeaux and unexpected, grounded work by Lucio Fulci veteran MacColl (The Beyond) and Head, star of Sunday Bloody Sunday and singer of the chart topper "One Night in Bangkok" from the stage musical Chess. The film sets itself up as a mystery and does deliver a solution if you're paying attention, though the mysterious final shot leaves things open enough to provoke at least a couple of different theories about what's transpired. It's most effective if you treat the dreams as equally significant and real as anything in the rest of the film for it to make any sense, however, instead of a study of a woman's psyche being pulverized by her nightmares, which would be a far more depressing story.
Artsploitation brings this visual feast to both Blu-ray and DVD in high style with a rich, nicely textured anamorphic transfer that really pops in its 1080p incarnation. Colors are very vivid and powerful, and for a digitally-shot production it comes admirably close to capturing the look of a '70s European art film. The original English audio featuring a beautifully effective electronic score is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1, 5.1 Dolby Digital, and 2.0 Dolby Stereo, with optional English subtitles (which are often a couple of seconds out of synch and have some HTML code written in at times).
The major extra here is a whopping 57-minute look at the making of the film, mostly covering the second half of the shoot (which took a year and a half, on and off). Basset opens by describing it as "a mad project, a little crazy, made with friends," chatting quite a bit about the film's intentions with Pointeaux on a couch interspersed with a huge amount of behind-the-scenes footage. The filmmakers weren't allowed on set during any of the nude scenes, amusingly enough, which leads to an odd voiceover describing a potential disaster during the shooting of the crucifixion scene. Also included are a quartet of French short films, "Bloody Current Exchange" (10 mins.), "Light Drowning" (1 mins.), "Remy" (6 mins.), and "Faces & Landscapes of Beaujolais" (3 mins.), all beautifully shot and dealing with fantasy or horror in varying degrees, as well as the trailer and extra ones for The House with 100 Eyes, Der Samurai, and The Treatment.