OCTOBER 3, 2016
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (FESTIVAL SCREENING)
It's easy to see how much the landscape has switched from movies to television when almost anyone can tell you that Beyond The Walls (French: Au-delà des Mur) would have worked better as a film than a "TV series" (more like miniseries, as it runs for three episodes that run about standard TV episode length - 45-50 minutes). The "cliffhangers" that end the first two episodes are really just ends of their respective acts, no different than any other movie, and things are quite padded in the first episode to ensure that first big moment comes at the end of its required length. Indeed, throughout the next two episodes I kept waiting for payoffs for those early scenes, distracting me away from what was otherwise a really good take on the standard horror trope of someone atoning for a past mistake via creepy/supernatural elements.
These scenes include some very specific details that have no bearing on anything else, such as the fact that our heroine Lisa (Veerle Baetens) works as a speech therapist, that she pretends to have a husband in order to avoid social encounters, and, in one peculiar moment, is attempting a casual encounter with a guy she met in the bar, only to give him blue balls as she becomes seemingly more interested in an abandoned car in the garage. I kept waiting for these things, given at least half of the first episode, to really tie into what came later (particularly the dusty car), but not only do they not, she never even explains their significance to the other characters. I mean, there's a difference between some character development and seemingly setting up an entirely different kind of movie - if you stripped that chunk out and showed it to someone, they'd assume they were seeing a Repulsion-esque drama about an unhinged woman. Five minutes' worth of screentime is all it would have taken to tell us that she's lonely (partially by choice), which is really all we need out of this material.
The real plot starts (and I should note that this earlier stuff only bugged me in retrospect once I realized it had no bearing on anything - in the moment it's fine, well-acted, well-made, etc.) when she finds out that she has inherited the house across the street after its owner was discovered dead - and had been so for thirty years before being discovered. She never met him and had no connection to his family, so she's obviously a bit confused, but hey - free house! One she can move into by herself (it's not a humorous movie for the most part, but seeing her lug her mattress across the busy street is pretty amusing), and apparently fix up herself too - I don't care if it's "woke" of me to say so but there are fewer things I find more attractive than a woman who knows how to fix some plumbing and wield a sledgehammer in order to knock down an undesired wall. Naturally, she looks the gift horse in the mouth, trying to figure out why this long-dead man would leave her a house (and how he even had her name to begin with), but before long she's got a bigger mystery to solve - who or what is making the noise behind a wall in her bedroom. She knocks that one down too and finds a secret passageway, which leads to a gigantic, rundown ballroom that in no way could have been included in her newly acquired residence.
Obviously, we're dealing with a more fantastical kind of horror here; in fact it's almost tough to really call it horror at all. Creepy moments (including one right after she enters that ballroom) are plentiful, but I was reminded more of things like City of Lost Children and Neverwhere than anything full-blown terror oriented. Not a knock on the "movie", of course - just a heads up for those who might hear "French + horror" and go in hoping for the next Inside. Lisa meets Julien (François Deblock), a mysterious man who says he has been trapped in there for three years, and the two work together in order to try to find their way out once they realize that they can't go back the way she just entered. Julien has been compiling a map on the walls of the little room he has set up as his base/safe haven, and it's MASSIVE - the movie almost feels like a video game adaptation for a bit, as impossibly large structures are their forte (think the first Resident Evil) and mysterious strangers temporarily helping you along is an element of pretty much every "survival horror" game ever made. But again, the story and characters are more important than the scary things they find on occasion, and director/creator Hervé Hadmar offers the right balance: the world he creates here is fleshed out just enough to keep from being incoherent, but never so much that it's more interesting than our characters' respective journeys.
As mentioned they both need to atone for something - as it turns out, they both blame themselves for a death they feel they could have prevented. When they were younger, Lisa's sister drowned because she was too busy flirting with a guy instead of watching her swim, and Julien was forced to leave his best friend to die during the war. But unlike Flatliners or whatever, their ghosts are not angry or vengeful - they just want to be back together with their loved ones in this endless would-be paradise. Of course we don't know too much about what Julien was like before he got trapped there, but if there is one benefit to the over-time spent with Lisa's day-to-day, we know that there's nothing for her back in the "real world" and it wouldn't be too much of a hassle for her to stay there with her beloved sister, who harbors no grudge against her for what she did. I liked this scenario - ordinarily the thinking would be "she has to escape and get back to her life!" but here I found myself kind of torn; would it really be so bad to stay there forever? Or will this place get her to realize that an ideal, drama-free life isn't really a life at all, because we need the lows to appreciate the highs?
Weighty stuff for a movie that features a minotaur, I know, but that's exactly what made it so intriguing (it's worth noting that despite my usual exhaustion for this time of the year, AND the subtitles for a 2.5 hr experience, I stayed awake the entire time!). It's a fairly well-balanced mix of many genres, offering just enough world-building to make it compelling but not over-explaining everything and exhausting all of its potential (i.e. a prequel or sequel could be enticing, but not necessary). There's horror, drama, romance, and fantasy all offered in equal doses, led by two solid actors playing characters you'll easily care about. In short, even if it was in English it could never be mistaken for an American horror movie from Screen Gems or Blumhouse, and is highly worth your time even with its peculiar three episode structure. It will be available on Shudder soon, where you can choose to watch it like a traditional on-air TV series if you want, but in this day of binge-watching I can successfully assume no one will bother to break it up even if it was six or eight episodes. It's unfortunate that the 3rd episode (which largely takes place outside the "house", though I won't divulge how/why as I think of it as one movie and thus spoilers) is the weakest overall, but the closing moments tie it all up nicely and it's more just a testament to how good the first two are that it seems like a lesser entry. If you're already a Shudder subscriber (and you should be), there's no reason not to watch - if you're NOT already a member, take advantage of a free trial to check it out. Either way, it's definitely worth the time (and reading, unless you speak French), and hopefully Hadmar has plans to expand on this intriguing universe in the future. And kudos to Beyond Fest for giving it a showcase alongside the traditional features, because not only was that production design fantastic to see on a big screen, but it also gave a spotlight to something that might have gone under my radar otherwise.
What say you?