France
has really been killing it in the horror genre for the past decade – no
pun intended (who am I kidding; pun totally intended). This is likely
the reason I was hearing good buzz at Screamfest for The Pack (aka, La meute), as I can’t imagine anyone who has actually sat through the film passing along such positive words. The Pack
is a fairly lousy movie that manages to fool you for a while – a long
while actually – because it is so very well made. But beneath the great
performances and surefooted direction lurks an uninteresting and
surprisingly lame script.

Charlotte
(Émilie Dequenne) is driving through the French countryside.
A stop to get gas puts her in the sights of a trio of asshole bikers,
who soon begin following Charlotte on the road. This prompts her to stop
and pick up a hitchhiker, Max (Benjamin Biolay). The two are hitting it
off, but when they stop for food at a rinky-dink diner, things take an
eerie turn. When Max never returns from the bathroom, Charlotte begins
searching for him. Suspecting something is not what it seems, Charlotte
breaks into the diner at night, but quickly finds herself kidnapped by
La Spack (Yolande Moreau), the middle-aged female owner of the
establishment. Charlotte soon discovers that she (and other prisoners)
is to be used as food for “the pack,” a group of
monstrous ghouls that La Spack cares for. Now, her only hope of rescue
is Chinaski (Philippe Nahon), a pervy retired sheriff.

There is a lot to like about The Pack at first. Typical of recent French genre cinema, The Pack
has all the trappings of serious arthouse cinema. The cinematography is
fantastic; the entire movie is given a grim and dirty look, with
overcast skies and dour color tones. Our lead, Dequenne, isn’t
just some random hottie. She is truly excellent, making Charlotte
completely lived-in – we learn everything we need to know about the
character just from the way she carries herself. Which isn’t
to say she isn’t a hottie too. Dequenne is sublimely sexy in
that unhealthy, constantly smoking, and surly way that only French girls
can inexplicably pull off. Another stand out is Nahon, as the pervy but
ultimately heroic Chinaski. Dr. Loomis didn’t wear a
“Fucks On the First Date” T-shirt at all times (and I
mean, all times; the film spans a week or so). The crowd I saw the film
with actually cheered when Chinaski narrowly escapes death by using
some powers of observation.

At
first it also seems the like film is provoking some interesting
subtext. It is revealed (to us) almost immediately after Charlotte picks
up Max, that Max is no good, which I thought made the context in which
Charlotte met him intriguing. She only stops her car because some men
are harassing her, so Max is meant to be a form of protection – she is
turning to a man to protect her from other men. Yet now she finds
herself with another nefarious fellow. Maybe it’s just cause the film is
French, but I falsely assumed this was to mean something thematically. As it turns out, that is simply how events went down. Nothing more.



Once
Charlotte is captured by La Spack and thrown into a cage, the film does
something I always appreciate and enjoy in horror or suspense films:
our hero exhausts her possibilities immediately. She uses her phone (and
yes, she does
get reception). She successfully unties herself. She gets the keys to
her cage. She gets a weapon. These all happen fairly fast, and she is
always foiled in a plausible fashion, which is great, because
there’s nothing more frustrating in a movie than constantly
having the nagging thought of “Why doesn’t he/she
just…?” Charlotte does it all and it
doesn’t work. This leaves her predicament truly dire.

But the good times are not to last.

The Pack is somewhat From Dusk Til Dawn-esque,
in the way it suddenly shifts into a monster flick with no prior
set-up. Normally
adding monsters to a movie is a pretty easy way to make me instantly
love it. Just as removing monsters is an easy way to make me instantly
hate it (I’m looking at you The Village). I mention this to clarify that I am not
bothered by the transition or sudden appearance of supernatural
elements. My problem is that the film becomes sloppy garbage from this point on. And don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything for
you by bringing up the monsters. Every synopsis and summary
I’ve seen for the film – including the extremely brief blurb
in the Screamfest program – mentions the monsters.

The biggest issue is “the pack” itself. The creature design reminded me of the Pale Man character from Pan’s Labyrinth, but with some added boar tusks and wearing mining jumpsuits. (I don’t want to be accused of “spoiling”
the look of the creatures, but pics can easily be found by searching
Google Images.) Their design is fine, but they move around like Romero zombies, which makes them a dull presence. Their backstory (they maybe were once miners) doesn’t really make enough sense to justify our human villains’ motivations. Bottom line: there is just no tension or spark to the monsters. The entirety of the monster story
frankly feels like a lesser episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
At first I actually thought the creatures were supposed to be funny.
When I realized they weren’t, that’s about the exact
moment the movie shit the bed for me.

Everything
about the film starts falling apart. The character of La Spack becomes groundless. Earlier in the film there is a great scene where
Charlotte attacks La Spack, and La Spack kicks the shit out of her.
Breathing heavy, La Spack notes that she used to wrestle in school;
Charlotte has no chance against her hand-to-hand. La Spack is much
larger than Charlotte, so the moment works. But soon La Spack becomes
almost unkillable, putting grown men in chokeholds. Worse yet is the
return of the bikers from the beginning of the film. These characters
are complete cartoons, devoid of any semblance of believability,
intentionally so (they’d be right at home in Return of the Living Dead or Street Trash).
The presence of the characters early in the film should have tipped me
off, but everything else was so on-the-money that I took them as a
calculated bit of weirdness. In the context of the shitty second half of
the film they serve only to push things farther down the toilet. In
fact, I completely lost any sense of what writer/director Franck Richard
was trying to go for in the final portions of the film.

There
are moments that feel like something out of a self-reflexive
horror-comedy – like one of the bikers getting his beating
heart pulled out of his chest, or when another character conveniently
reveals a giant chest of guns and ammo in the small cabin Charlotte
hides in during the climax. The bikers themselves, when they return, are
distractingly absurd, undermining any sense of tension or danger every
time they’re on screen. If the film had just decided to become
completely batshit bonkers mid-way through, like Lamberto
Bava’s Demons
or something, that’s one thing. But Richard never fully goes
for it. He doesn’t really go for anything towards the end.
It’s more like he just had some random ideas and slapped them
into the film, regardless of how these moments would fit into the
emotional context of things.

Richard
just didn’t know how to make his monster story work. Nothing that
happens feels important. There is one great kill involving one of the
annoying bikers, where a creature punches through a door (and the biker)
to unlock it, but that doesn’t exactly help the film overall. With each
passing moment the film becomes less interesting. By the end I was
finding it a tedious chore to watch, counting the moments until it was
finally over. In the end I was left somewhat angry. It is aggravating to
watch a filmmaker piss away so much good work. I wish there had been a
way to give this film’s production values and acting caliber
to The Shrine. That film deserved it.

5.9 out of 10