First-time feature film director Romain Basset picked up the prize for Best Director at Fantasporto 2015 for his unforgettable film Horsehead, a haunting film that possesses such vivid visuals and strong performances that you will find yourself contemplating the film long after the closing credits have rolled and you've gone on with your life.
Jessica (Lilly Fleur-Pointeaux) has been haunted since childhood by vivid and strange nightmares. When she returns home for her grandmother's funeral, the nightmares worsen and she begins to experience, or at least it seems she begins to experience, a dramatic happening unfold between her mother, Catelyn (Catriona MacColl, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead), her deceased grandparents, and a mysterious figure with a horse head. Jessica's grandmother's body lies in the next room awaiting the wake, but it seems as if she's somehow trying to reach out to Jessica with a message.
What is it? Will she reach her?
In some ways, watching Horsehead reminded me of how I felt watching last year's unexpected indie horror hit The Babadook, not because they are necessarily similar in style or story but because the two films initially seem rather straightforward yet go in unexpected directions and possess far greater style and substance than one usually finds within the indie horror scene.
Basset wasn't content to simply make a horrifying film, he created a film that is intellectually satisfying, visually arresting, emotionally riveting, and so completely chilling that it's practically impossible to forget it.
We catch on very early that Jessica's relationship with her mother is tense, a relationship bridged ever so slightly by the presence of her step-father, Jim (Murray Head), a quieter and more sympathetic figure whose understated presence here is absolutely the perfect tone to help balance everything else that unfolds in the film.
It seems as if Jessica's relationship with her mother is a clue, perhaps of something from the past or something with the grandparent or something entirely different. It's never completely certain and that's one of many reasons the film works so nicely.
Jessica pushes herself further, determined to discover the truth. Inhaling ether, Jessica begins entering mesmerizing and beautifully manifested dreamlike states that scare her mother yet serve to convince Jim that, just perhaps, Jessica is actually on to something.
D.P. Vincent Vieillard-Baron accomplishes amazing things for a low-budget indie, helping this fantasy/horror flick take on an almost perpetually dream-like state that at times makes you wonder if you've entered a Ken Russell film. He pulls off several astounding shots that are just breathtaking, yet never becomes so avant-garde that you are pulled out of everything that is happening. The film also features a powerful original score from Benjamin Shielden, while Bruno Vitti's production design is spot-on. For those familiar with indie horror, it will be impossible to miss Horsehead's tributes to European legends such as Argento and Bava.
In perhaps even more of a rarity, Basset has cast the film beautifully. Lilly Fleur-Pointeaux is nearly flawless as the complex, vulnerable yet strong Jessica, while Catriona MacColl is absolutely sublime as her mother. As noted, Murray Head, yes the guy from "One Night in Bangkok," gives an understated, disciplined and emotionally resonant performance as Jim.
After its successful festival run, Horsehead has been picked up by U.S. based indie distributor Artsploitation Films for a DVD/Blu-ray/VOD release on June 23rd. DVD/Blu-ray extras include four short films, a "making of" featurette, and the film's original trailer. You can pre-order the film now at the Artsploitation website.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic