Horsehead was a disappointment right off the bat by not being about the guy tasked with leaving Horse Heads in mafioso beds. Nor was it an origin story of the popular horse masks that I earnestly hope we will all one day wear during all social occasions. Nor was it a biography of a man who desperately wanted to start a trend in which we all one day wear horse masks during all social occasions. In fact, nobody in the movie even wears a comedic horse mask, even for a minute.
This doesn’t count; it’s not comedic, it’s for spooks.
Instead what Horsehead represented was a horror film largely taking place within dreams. From the outset, it had seemed promising. French arthouse films have a certain reputation, but I’ve tended to enjoy them. Horror and art work nicely together, the horse-man in the trailer was spooky, and the music was pumping me up. Unfortunately however, it was the sort of movie that likes to make you ask a lot of questions. It makes you ask a lot of questions, but the only one it answers is “What has Murray Head been up to since One Night in Bangkok?”
The film is a surrealistic horror. Oddly, though within its own tone, the film is English-language despite the bulk of its cast and crew being French. Why is our cast speaking English with French Accents in their daily personal lives? That’s just the first question Horsehead brings up. Jessica (Lily-Fleur Pointeaux) is a young psychology student estranged from her family. When her grandmother dies, her mother (Catroina MacColl) and stepfather (Murray Head, no relation to film’s star Horse Head) request she return to join in their creepy French funeral rites, wherein the grandmother’s body lays in state in her bedroom for a few days.
Jessica stays in the room next to her grandmother’s funerary chamber, and begins being plagued by nightmares. She seeks answers in her grandmother’s effects, and an amorphous mystery unfolds, with drawings of horse-headed demons and ambiguous references to Jessica’s late grandfather, a real “Old-Testament man.” Jessica decides to put her super-scientific psychological training to use by dropping a lot of ether and investigating her grandmother’s life, her mysterious grandfather, this horse-headed demon, and questions about her own birth and absent biological father.
This is where things break down. he begins spending all of her time self-medicating with ether, to a point of becoming ill with fever, then weak and delirious. Her mother, concerned, contacts a doctor to prescribe medication to stop her dreaming, when these dreams are clearly affecting her psychological state. And this is something that seems logical and understandable. This film is surely then about the breakdown of a delusional girl, plagued with nightmares, seeing her family as her enemy to her own self-destructive end, yes?
Unlike Final Fantasy games, ether doesn’t grant magical power in real life.
Well, no. Despite that there is nothing really set up in this film’s internal logic that magic is, well, a thing, her self-destructive nightmare spree seemingly grants her real tangible information to unravel her mystery. Somehow, despite her earlier protestations that her dream psychology studies are based in science, they are now inseparable from magic by granting her this divination. So she delves deeper and deeper, and more mysteries come to light. Who is her father? What was her grandfather’s deal? What is even up with her confrontational mother? Why is Murray Head in this movie again? Is that creepy groundskeeper there because horror mansions are contractually obligated to keep a creepy groundskeeper? Does this Horsehead thing represent someone in particular? Is he a demon?
We don’t get answers. Writer-Director Romain Basset follows the Lost school of mystery where you contrive the most spooky unanswerable questions you can, and then resolve absolutely nothing. The film seems to be unsure if it wants to be about self-destruction and delusion or an actual supernatural mystery. Internal logic is a non-entity.
In short: I get the feeling that Basset watched The Cell one day, saw the cool part with the horse, and thought, “Man, I bet I could make this same movie, but way more obfuscated by artsy incomprehensible crap.” Nothing seems to make any sense, nothing has any consistent logic, nothing seems to build toward any revelation or understanding. I will give it credit for its mise-en-scene and cinematography – it’s a pretty movie, and seems to have a lot of artistic influence in renaissance art – another reason I’m certain that Basset was influenced by Tarsem Sing’s The Cell, with its heavy renaissance chiaroscuro art direction.
Had the film stuck with a logic that “Jessica is a drug-addled damaged girl who drives herself mad with delusion,” and featured her nightmares as an analogy of her psychological state, it would have been a decent movie. If it had stuck with a logic that “Jessica is drawn into a nightmare world by a malicious supernatural being and must solve the mysteries of her family,” it would have been a decent movie. Sometimes two ideas are like peanut-butter and chocolate, or chess and Bangkok; others are like vinegar and milk. Horsehead, alas, is the latter.
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