Last night was my second most anticipated screening of the festival, close behind the Midnight Madness closing night screening of Kill List. Livid is the second offering from the directors, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, makers of the Midnight Madness shocker and crowd-pleaser, Inside. I was not there four years ago for the screening of Inside, in fact I watched it a mere three months ago when I decided to get heavily back into horror cinema for the first time since high school, but let me tell you, Inside hits HARD. Mom, if you are reading this, perhaps you should skip to the next post, the synopsis for Inside is a little upsetting. Inside tells the story of pregnant woman’s fight for survival as she is terrorized on Christmas Eve by an insane woman wielding a pair of scissors and presumably, trying to take her unborn child. Inside, while shocking and terrifying, is also one of the most effectively balanced tug-of-wars, between heroine and villain, of recent memory. In my opinion this places it miles away from the torture-porn label. Having created one of the best horror-thrillers of the past decade, it is no wonder that expectations for Livid were sky high.
Livid is of a decidedly different sub-genre than the tense and violent Inside. During the introduction of the film, Alexandre Bustillo described Livid as being inspired by old Hammer horror films and the maestro of Italian horror, Dario Argento. The film tells the story of Lucy, a young in-house caregiver trainee on her first day of the job with an experienced nurse who has been making these rounds for some time. The final house call is at a mansion in the woods that local children believe to be haunted. Inside, Lucy meets Mrs. Jessel, a woman who is over one hundred years old, breathes with the help of a respirator, and is in a completely vegetative state. The nurse tells Lucy that Mrs. Jessel’s wish to die in her home is being honoured because she is rich, and may even have a treasure of some sort hidden within the mansion. Lucy thinks nothing of it, but later, after being reminded of how desperately she and her father need money, she is convinced by her boyfriend Will to break into the mansion at night, and use the treasure to live more comfortable lives. Lucy, Will and his brother, Ben, set off to find the treasure, but a series of horrific events forces them to forget about the treasure, and strive to be free of the deadly clutches of Mrs. Jessel’s terrifying home. Bustillo was correct in describing Livid as a fusion of Hammer and Argento Horror, however the influence of the former was much more effective than the later.
Hammer horror films were best at creating haunting atmospheres and utilizing slow buildups. In Livid, the Hammer influenced aspect is executed masterfully and really sets the scene before the group of young explorers enter the mansion. The cinematography and set design are expert. Slow camera pans through the forest and mansion give the viewer the impression of lurking danger. Towering high angle shots give the impression that the characters as simply insects walking into a deadly predator’s trap. Also, the colour palette of lush greens, and soft blues of the forest and sea, contrast strikingly with the dark hues of the mansion and its interior. This juxtaposition can even be found in the irises of Lucy, as one of her eyes is an innocent blue and the other an engulfing dark brown. Livid is hands down the most visually impressive film I have seen so far at the festival. The influence of Hammer horror can be found in the score. Plenty of sorrowful string instruments let us know that there is a dark history to the mansion that Lucy is not aware of. The buildup to the horror is masterful, and is without a doubt Livid’s strongest quality, unfortunately when the true horror begins and the Argento influence takes over, the film takes a confusing and ineffective turn.
I am a huge fan of classic Argento films, and to me they often feel like bad dreams. The imagery is striking, the music is unsettling, and escape from the nightmare often seems impossible. Characters, their actions, and the story do not always make sense in Argento films, very much like in dreams. This method has made Argento films akin to paintings in an art gallery, you either like them or you don’t, their is no correct answer. Livid seems to borrow this dream like feel and subsequent lack of explanations, but it only sets on when the group enters the mansion, making the transition rather jarring. MINOR PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD. Red flood lighting (a la Suspiria) and discordant music (similar to Goblin) are used with some effectiveness, however the main Argento influence seems to be unexplained horror. For example, one of the treasure hunters is transported through a mirror into a laboratory fit for a mad scientist, and then attacked by a group of undead ballerinas. We never see these ballerinas again and never understand how the character had been transported through the mirror. This scene may work as art, but it is frustrating when placed after the ‘Hammer‘ style buildup. Unfortunately, it only manages to lessen the horror of the scene, as confusion takes a front seat.
The special effects and scares of the film are hit and miss. Some scenes near the end of the film feature amazingly grotesque imagery and force the viewer to wonder in awe as to how the directors got that on film. While others, a fingernail cutting through a stomach, seem artificial and a little rushed. Also, the scares in the film range from startling to ineffective. I can’t help but think that some startle scares should have been built up a little more and the startling sounds mixed a little louder.
I am a huge fan of Bustillo and Maury. Even if they never made another film, I would always think of them as masters of horror based on Inside alone. However, their second film, Livid, is ineffective as a whole, but probably worth a viewing at some point for the gorgeous imagery and haunting score alone. I feel partially responsible for my issues with Livid because of my unrealistically high expectations. This is only the directors’ second film! I have no doubt that Bustillo and Maury will be back with another winner in the future and until then, I remain a loyal fan.