Vincent Paronnaud’s over the top slasher film wants to say something about misogyny while treating its female lead as an object to be abused.
With occasional exceptions, there’s something of an unspoken agreement with an audience when they watch a slasher or survival horror film that they’ll receive some form of catharsis. It could be the voyeuristic pleasure of the kills, victims/survivors overturning their attackers, or more bluntly – just a reason to watch. Vincent Paronnaud’s Hunted doesn’t ignore this precept as much as revel in the unsatisfying imbalance between relief and lack thereof to the point of rendering it meaningless.
Billed as a grindhouse riff on Red Riding Hood and introduced with the arguable highlight of the entire film – a striking folk horror flashback illustrated with a hybrid of ink painting and live-action silhouettes about defenders of the forrest – these allusions suggest a loftier (and more self-aware) mythos that the rest of the film neither takes full advantage of or deserves in the first place. Aside from its cartoonishly frequent gratuitous violence and flashy but empty fairy tale trappings; this is very much your meat-and-potatoes slasher complete with a seemingly invulnerable sociopath preying on a young woman.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Great films, horror and otherwise, have been built on less, but the implication of some larger backstory is the first in a series of attempts to camouflage thin characterization and a lack of narrative ideas. The setup here is familiar, but already beggars belief in its its first minutes when Eve (Lucie Debay) rushes out of her apartment without her phone to escape a doting boyfriend’s texts before walking to a bar for an unplanned cocktail. Inevitably, she’s accosted when a pushy guy tries to pick her up.
Another attractive, charmingly off-kilter man soon steps in (Arieh Worthalter), tells the previous guy to buzz off and Eve and this “handsome man” proceed to drink and dance together before tumbling into the backseat of his car for a quick hookup. The mood dissipates nearly immediately as the man’s friend, Andy (Ciaran O’Brien) sits in the drivers seat, locks the doors, and the handsome man’s demeanor radically changes. His brusque manner curdles into outright misogyny as as he pulls out a large video camera and slut-shames her as she insistently asks to be let out of the car.
She’s initially released, but this is the start of a game of cat-and-mouse right out of fixtures of the sub-genre like The Hitcher and The Hills Have Eyes. Nodding to that history, there’s a vicious playfulness here. In a highlight, one scene cuts back and forth between a trunk-bound Eve trying vainly to dial on another victim’s cell phone and the two men in the front seat miming her whining while listening to blaring Eurocheese house music.
That absurdity persists in a forest car wreck involving a wild animal and a kiss that pops open up the trunk as a tied-up Eve runs like hell through the surrounding knotty forest in the dead of night. Winging her shoulders on unseen branches and the crunching rustle of leaves under her feet; there’s a real delirium to this escape as she seems to be actively emerging from her embryo as a classic horror heroine.
Those promising scenes are a prelude to a realization that Eve is not a character as much a person made feral from tedious emotional and physical torture.Throughout, Debay tries her hardest to imbue her character with the semblance of an arc through involving body language and a receding vulnerability, but it can’t cloak that the film turns curiously sluggish whenever the camera is in her presence, even as it wants to build to an avenging angel scenario.
Those promising scenes are a prelude to a realization that Eve is not a character as much a person made feral from tedious emotional and physical torture.
Instead, the film substitutes time to expand her characterization with DP Joachim Phillippe and Parannoud’s loving treatment of her surroundings. Emphasizing the towering treetops from ground level and the verdant foliage around her, an energy emerges when it focuses on these elements. And together with sudden reveals of teeming wildlife on the ground floor, near trunks, and the intermittent sound of wolves howling in the background – it occasionally achieves a certain mythicism. The follow-through of those details not only then feels perfunctory, but further underlines how much the film doesn’t care about the main character if she’s not being attacked or eventually, attacking.
The same can’t be said for the murderers whose relationship is defined by lunatic sea changes in tone. Sometimes Worthalter acts as a guardian to the clumsy Andy, and other times, he’s an unrelenting bully who will stick his finger into his open wound while badly bandaging him up. Those decisions are casual, spur-of-the-moment indulgences from a character who practically considers himself an auteur of snuff films, which comes into play in a few darkly funny but unnecessary scenes.
With the character’s practiced charisma and colorful gallows humor, the camera clearly relishes Worthalter’s performance, but all of the time spent with him feels misguided when an errant dog near the end is given more ceremony and personality than Eve. It’s not inherently meaningful that Worthalter’s character fixates on the violence of women, but it’s more disingenuous to ignore the extent to which women are murdered and mutilated in a way that splits the difference between glib sight gags and lingering gross out kills.
In texture and extremity, Hunted more than a little bit resembles a lesser version of Coralie Fargeat’s breakout rape revenge film, Revenge. But where that film rhymed the ultimate violation of the male gaze with her subsequent retaliation as an ultimate catharsis; Hunted is so enamored with the big bad wolf that it forgets the real star of that story.
Hunted premieres on Shudder January 14th.
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