If your jaded eyes cannot bear any further onslaught of virus-ravaged, rage-infected, turbo-charged zombies, and if you believe that the 28 Days Later-fashioned super-sprinting plague-ridden nasties are boring, de rigueur staples of modern horror, then you’ll probably run faster from new French horror movie Mutants than if you were the first meal of the day for the starving undead themselves.
Yet to cast it off as just another amphetamine-fuelled flesh-ripper would be a mistake, as there is much to cherish in David Morlet’s challenging movie, which is particularly impressive given that it constitutes a directorial debut (in terms of a full-length feature, at least; Morlet had already cut his teeth on a couple of horror ‘shorts’). As with many of the successful modern French horror films, proceedings adopt surprising depth with a refreshing and analytical approach to what initially seems to be well-trodden territory. Don’t be put off by the outwardly familiar theme and the somewhat misleading cover imagery; the resultant product represents a live dissection of the anatomy of love, loyalty, and the miserable dynamics of human suffering.
Morlet cements the foundations of the impending ordeal from the off, presenting a disturbing and exhilarating opening sequence against the beautiful but cold and isolated backdrop of the sprawling, snowy forest. Already, we are trapped within an agonising dichotomy; we have the dazzling white, innocent beauty of nature as our canvas, yet the bloody carnage of the virus, and the filthy, dilapidated buildings are splattered crudely across the surface. Before long, this is mirrored in the unfolding human tragedy; Sonia, our paramedic protagonist, is a rare subject of immunity from the terrifying virus that has decimated the population within three months, and her love for partner Marco is loyal and pure. Yet with cruel and unrelenting attrition, the virus slowly dismantles his body, spirit, and mind, inflicting a cruel and unthinkable torment for both parties.
In some respects, one of the greatest assets of the movie – its comprehensive analysis of love and suffering – places it in danger of losing its substantial engagement with the viewer. The overall delivery plays out like a movie of two halves, with the climatic and frenzied second half existing in stark contrast to the slow-burning build-up of the first. It’s a testament to its quality that this inconsistent pace doesn’t impact too heavily on the entire piece, but the line Morlet treads carries substantial risk and may frustrate some.
If the pacing can sometimes be questioned, it’s difficult to query the technical delivery of this accomplished production. Lighting is thoughtful; when Sonia treats Marco in the blanketed darkness of the hospital we see a glowing shard of light emanating from the machine gun she is using as a light source, and the result is clearly one of gentle, warm tenderness; yet surrounding the light strand is thick, solid blackness, and the unerring manner in which this envelopes the pair represents their predicament with unequivocal bleakness.
The composition and framing is also executed with considerable thought and precision. As Sonia endures the agony of witnessing Marco’s protracted deterioration, the camera slowly and accurately zooms towards a small round window in a closed door, and as Sonia walks across, she is framed within the circular glass. Our helpless position as a viewer behind the window echoes her own sense of despair, helplessness, and futility, as she watches the cruel demise of her loved one.
The score swings from murky, throbbing, B-movie intensity through to the beautifully clean and intricate guitar and piano sections, and provides an elegant aural backdrop. Effects are supremely well handled, and work in tandem with the measured lighting to provide an increasingly tense climax. Restraint is key, as we initially glimpse stunning flashes of mutant images in the darkness, particularly in the mind of the bitten. The transformation of human to mutant is especially gruelling and effective, and the increasing hordes of the infected are represented with impressive aplomb.
Ignore the well-worn subgenre categorisation and regulation cover art; Mutants is a deeply human and moving document of love, loyalty, and human suffering. The two-speed story construction lends itself to some strange plot pacing, which has a partially diluting effect on the overall impact, but this story has sufficient depth to largely transcend the limitations of the structure, and still manages to crank up the pace to unleash a devastating climax. When it comes to challenging, emotionally-charged, and stylishly-executed nerve-slicing shockers, the French prove yet again that they really are a hard act to follow.
This release from Momentum Pictures is delivered with region 2 encoding on a single disk, and is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The transfer appears clean and true, and the breathtaking views of the grand snowy forests are represented brilliantly. The overall colouring is slightly muted on the whole, particularly inside the dirty walls of the old hospital building that forms much of the films’ backdrop, lending a grey-tinged perspective that feels suitably futile, in alignment with the characters’ outlook. The exception here is with the red of the considerable blood output; whereas certain shots represent it with an almost black consistency, other scenes – such as the one where Sonia gives Marco a DIY blood transfusion – feature a vibrant and colourful red which is vividly presented against the murkiness to great effect.
The subtitles are displayed in white with a thin black outline, and are sensibly sized to be readable yet unobtrusive. The translation feels realistic and genuine. On one occasion I did miss the subtitles as they flashed off the screen quickly, but other than that small gripe they are intelligently done.
The soundtrack is delivered in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the audio reproduction of the engaging score is vibrant and clear. Voices have clarity and depth, and the sound placement is impressive, particularly with the ravenous screams of the virus-ridden victims as they slowly approach their frantic prey.
There is no evident distortion, but on occasions some of the louder noises seem to affect the level of the pounding electronic score. Whether this is an intentional consequence, I’m not sure, but even so, it’s a minor gripe.
It’s a genuine disappointment that there aren’t any real extras here. All we have is a theatrical trailer. Mutants is an impressive and fresh product of the subgenre, and some analysis and further insight would have rounded off this disk nicely.
It could have been just another amphetamine-fuelled zombie flick, but David Morlet instead opts for an impressive mutation of the subgenre by introducing a love story, and an in-depth analysis of the dynamics of human suffering. The contrasting frenzied explosion of blood-soaked carnage in the second half of the film results in a strange sense of pace, and the paucity of extras is a real disappointment, but this superb picture represents an intriguing addition to the subgenre that is all the more impressive given the debutant status of our French director.