“How can one night go so terribly wrong?”, is the unspoken question posed by many of the most frightening horror movies. The New French Extremity, a small but culturally significant canon of recent films characterized by extreme depictions of violence and sexuality, often expresses this anxiety more potently than any other horror tradition in cinema. Much of Gaspar Noé‘s work (Irreversible, Enter the Void, and Climax) conveys this idea, as does Alexandre Aja‘s clinical slasher High Tension and Pascal Laugier‘s remarkably bleak Martyrs. The terrifying implication of these films, that one’s life is always at risk of profound pain and even death, forms much of the basis for their intensely nihilistic outlook and their eagerness to descend into the most severe depths of human suffering.
Inside (French title À l’intérieur), directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, takes this pessimistic soul of New French Extremity horror to heart and asserts it with shocking splashes of blood and ruthless elegance alike. While the film’s uncompromising commitment to corporal anguish make it an uncomfortable and frankly exhausting viewing experience, such chilling savagery is also the precise reason why Inside is one of the scariest pieces of horror made in the 21st century.
In its opening scene, pregnant photographer Sarah (Alysson Paradis) loses her husband in a brutal car accident. Months later, she is awoken from restless nightmares of childbirth by a mysterious woman (Béatrice Dalle, identified only as “La Femme” in the credits) at her door, asking to use her telephone. When Sarah sensibly refuses, the woman threatens her by name; even more alarmingly, she somehow knows Sarah is a widow. After phoning the police and apparently scaring her off, Sarah goes back to sleep, only to be awoken by the same woman assaulting her with a large pair of scissors.
From there, Inside launches into an increasingly vicious game of cat-and-mouse. Sarah, locked in her bathroom, is almost completely defenseless against her attacker except for the crude shard of mirror she clutches with manic desperation. It doesn’t take long for the violence to escalate into a bloodthirsty fever dream, but the fact that the film roots its initial source of fear in suspense is tremendously disarming. By the time it does reach the natural climax of its slaughter, the film has already assaulted its audience with levels of butchery so gratuitous that even the most sadistic of American torture porn flicks would shudder.
While the degree of bloodshed on display is certainly shocking in its own right, it’s only truly horrifying because it’s juxtaposed against such a familiar horror premise. By maliciously introducing itself under the guise of a conventional home invasion archetype, the film’s sharp turn into the confoundingly cruel jolts you into hysteria with a startling whiplash. Furthermore, the sheer degree of carnage inflicted upon Sarah (not to mention the other unfortunate people to stumble into her house during its occupation) is so jarring that it borders on the surreal; a police officer that arrives late to the crime scene even remarks in disgusted disbelief that the house is “a warzone”.
And indeed, what makes Inside so effectively scary is the way it leverages that physical body horror for an even stronger reaction of psychological stress. Not since I first watched Tobe Hooper‘s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (a mostly bloodless work, despite its name and infamous reputation) have I witnessed a horror movie so viscerally linger on a note of pure adrenaline. Where Hooper’s film earned its anxious ferocity with Eisensteinian montage and a horrific onslaught of screaming, Inside reaches a comparable conclusion with extreme gore. Wasting little time to stun you, the film exploits your initial state of disoriented nausea as a baseline from which to mount a further assault on the senses. It’s a truly exhilarating experience, a dizzying rush of terror that leaves you utterly exhausted by the time it reaches its appalling finish line.
Even with so much excessive cruelty, Inside is not a completely exploitative film, and it earns its violence with a sense of poignant tragedy. The events that unfold are genuinely heartbreaking, both from Sarah’s perspective and even from that of her sadistic assailant, whose own tragic motivations are revealed late in the film. Inside pulls no punches in its depiction of grief and trauma (both psychological and physical), even going so far as to frequently cut to a view from within Sarah’s womb of the damage inflicted to her unborn baby. However emotionally manipulative the technique may be, these “womb shots” compound greatly to the film’s already distressing subject matter, intensifying the immediate horror and rendering it an almost unbearably grim ordeal. The entanglement of tragedy and horror is pushed so far that death seems the only logical recourse for Sarah, and one of the most upsetting scenes in the film finds her impulsively attempting suicide. For the briefest of moments, death becomes a primal necessity for her, a means of escaping the never-ending horror engulfing her and her unborn child. When the line between nightmare and reality has been all but obliterated, who can blame her for preferring permanent nonexistence?
Ultimately, it’s that nihilistic sensibility that makes Inside such a harrowing and unforgettable experience. Its final images are as terrible, nauseating, and iconically taboo as anything I’ve seen in horror, but it’s their perverse whimper of victory for “La Femme” that makes their impression so haunting. Knowing all of this, one could be forgiven for never wanting to step within a mile of this grisly bloodbath. Assuming one is not genuinely sadistic, there is no “fun” to be had with Inside. Yet, for horror fans like myself, the film offers a powerful catharsis rarely found in the (generally speaking) more cautious American horror tradition. To those looking to add a bit of a kick to their screams, I can’t recommend Inside highly enough. You certainly won’t look at scissors the same way ever again.