Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's first film, À l'intérieur (Inside, 2007), was a jaw-dropping demonstration of precisely how much tension and horror can be wrung from a simple premise by two directors with a knack for gore. A woman with scissors wants in, a pregnant woman wants to keep her out. It was shocking and tense enough to be almost unendurable, all floated on the back of an exceedingly uncomplicated idea.
Their second film, Livide (Livid), is… more complex. To put it mildly. It opens with Lucy (Chloé Coulloud), a brooding young nurse-trainee with David Bowie eyes, waiting to be picked up by her trainer. She's taken to visit Mrs. Jessel, a profoundly old woman laying comatose in her enormously creepy, taxidermy-filled house. Jessel was a dancer and was fabulously rich, and her treasure is said to rest with her in the house (where she lays, having asked to be left to die, her dwindling life maintained by daily blood transfusions brought by the nurse).
When Lucy's boyfriend Will hears this tale, he enlists his brother and soon the three are crossing the moor (on Halloween, no less) to seek the treasure of the maybe-not-so-comatose Mrs. Jessel.
To describe Livide as a fairy tale, as many have, is to do it a kind of justice. It certainly has fairy tale elements - unnatural flames flickering in the forest, a catfish having tea with a deer (this is as terrifying as it sounds) - but while it shares the fable-like elliptical logic of a Grimm story, Livide is a fairy tale that's been pushed screaming through a bloody wire mesh of '70s Italian horror movies.
Focussing more on atmosphere than on linear A to B narrative, Bustillo and Maury augment the standard "three kids making bad decisions in a scary old house" structure with odd bits of geographic disorientation, sucking characters into hidden, secret spaces, and with odd, surreal flashbacks to Jessel's monstrous past. For every viscerally bloody murder (and there are a few) there are scenes that attempt to communicate a more intellectual type of thrill, some of which succeed and some of which... don't.
It's frustrating fare for folks not used to this kind of horror, and I have to admit that a lot of it went right by me, in the exact same way Dario Argento's work (which inspired Livide, to hear the directors tell it) did. It's not for everyone, but everyone is not everyone. While there are details and odd bits of the film that don't work (or were never supposed to) it'll satisfy fans looking for a little blood-red fairy tale dreaminess amidst the throat ripping and face biting.