On the recommendation of my friend Cynthia I Netflixed (this is surely a verb now) La Ceremonie, a film by Claude Chabrol, based on a novel by murder mystery writer Ruth Rendell. This movie scared the shit out of me and absolutely nothing supernatural happens in it. It is a movie of psychological terror. You let a stranger that harbors darkness into your house. You are on your own.
All I can say is that Isabelle Huppert in this movie is what my mother would call an "onshikenish" in Yiddish. A plague. A walking disaster. God, is she evil. God, is she scary. But not the way she was scary-repressed in The Piano Teacher. Here she is a dynamo of ebullient, concentrated restlessness, of human energy gone berserk. Huppert plays the post office woman in a rural town in France which is home to extremely wealthy people and their country chateaus. She is full of envy, she is a horrible gossip, a terrible chewer of gum and a heartless sociopath, with intimations of infanticide to boot. She opens and reads other people's mail, that is how bad she is. To say that Huppert pisses ice water is not nearly enough to describe the core of malevolent intelligence and selfish hardness that imbue her character (oh, but she does volunteer to help the Church, looking to rummage around what others discard for the poor). I think of her and I shiver.
She meets Sophie, the super creepy Sandrine Bonnaire, the new maid of these nice, intellectual, liberal, delightful rich people, Jacqueline Bisset (even sexier when she speaks French) and Jean-Pierre Cassel (wonderful actor and dad of Vincent, God Bless him) and their two children. This is one movie where you root for the rich.
So they hire La Bonnaire, who is quiet and thorough and cooks extremely well, although she seems a little unsocialized, a little weird. Jeanne doesn't insinuate herself into her life, she barges in, full of friendly energy and a certain correct instinct for complicity. I'm not going to tell you the movie. Suffice it to say that I suffered deliciously through it, but don't expect any of the usual scares. There are none. The malevolence just builds slowly, Chabrol leaves a lot unsaid, and you can fill in the blanks in search of the pourquoi, which makes it even more unsettling and disturbing. It is horrifying because it is perfectly feasible that there are nasty people out there who cannot control their hatred and their envy and their monstrous selfishness; whether you wish to ascribe it to social inequality, it doesn't matter. Evil festers and grows in the hearts of people. That is scary enough for me. Plus, it has a fabulous ending. Netflix it.
My friend Marta recommended Rec, a Spanish zombie movie that has been a darling of horror movies lately (an American version is in production, I believe). In the faux documentary vein of Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, a news team gets trapped in an old Barcelona apartment building where things are going bump in the night, and they record everything with their video camera. The movie has some very effective moments, particularly towards the end, but I thought it was stupid. The moment the people inside the building get quarantined and nobody helps them, I lost faith in the story, which means it stopped scaring me. It seemed too easy a development, too pat. If there is an army of people out there wearing containment masks and weapons, wouldn't they come in to try to destroy the source of infection? Wouldn't they try to help the innocent people trapped in there? The gringos would do it. Or is it in Latin/Spanish culture to hope that the infectious zombies are going eat themselves away? I wouldn't put it past us, but it weakens the strength of the movie.
What is interesting is that the tensions between the neighbors are immediately racist, which is a true reflection of Spanish society. Everybody wants to blame the Chinese (or Korean, it's never clear which) family that lives in the building. That sounded about right.
If you really want to scare the hell out of me, forget the flesh eating zombies, just call Isabelle Huppert.