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Shudder’s Kandisha directors explain why French horror is about survival

"It's the same shit since our beginning."

Since breaking onto the horror movie scene with 2007’s Inside, French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have been consistently putting out gory, unnerving films. Part of what’s been dubbed the ‘New French Extremity’, their work is known for pushing boundaries, and a half-dozen productions in, they’re still capable of a good shock.

Kandisha, their latest, is a supernatural story about taking revenge and losing control of the consequences. A young woman, Amelie, summons the titular demon to deal with her abusive ex, but the entity demands more bodies than just one. Panicked and afraid, Amelie and her friends have to figure out a way to stop the creature, before everyone they love is killed.

Transplanting an old Moroccan fable into modern day Paris, Bustillo and Maury turn generational fear into contemporary anxiety. We got the chance to speak to them about why they wanted to make the movie, putting together the look of Kandisha, and whether, after nearly 15 years, it’s gotten any easier to find an audience for European horror.

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Easy question to start: can you tell me how you came to making Kandisha?

Alexandre Bustillo: We love to ask people ‘What is your biggest fear?’ and we have a lot of friends who are from Morocco, and every time we ask them, all people, young and old have the same answer: ‘My biggest fear is Aisha Quandisha’. That’s like, for us, the lady in white, a very old, old, old legend, who’s become an urban legend. People still believe in it here even if they don’t still live in Morocco.

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With Julian, we had this idea to make a movie about this boogie-woman, because it’s a strong mythology, and it was a totally original concept for us in France to bring this character from Morocco to the French hood. Trying to make a crossover between ghost pictures and movies about the hood, and create a meeting of these two worlds, and this legend that’s still in the mind of Moroccan people.

The movie features a number of city sets, and it looks like it was shot on location? How did you choose where you shot?

Julien Maury: Yeah, like Alex said, one of the main ideas was to bring this old, antique legend, from the dark ages, and put it in a very reliable environment, this city neighbourhood that’s something very far away from what you can expect when you’re talking about ghost stories.

We wanted to shoot these suburbs exactly like beautiful landscapes. We strongly believe that this kind of environment hasn’t been well shot, it’s always an environment that is creating anxiety. That’s why we shot in scope, we wanted this to be very geometrical, with all of these lines everywhere. It’s very interesting.

It was also a way of showing that our protagonist, there is no line of horizon, in a metaphorical way. To them, they are stuck in this neighbourhood made of concrete. That’s why we did the first shot – it’s the only moment when you can see a horizon line, where there is the sky. After that, we dive into the concrete, to show that inside this environment that’s not very green, full of trees, we wanted to show that there is life.

And you can see that with this first shot, that life is growing inside this environment. We always thought it was very made for cinema, the architecture and cinematography.

Class is something that comes up quite a bit in the dialogue, this divide between some of the protagonists in terms of wealth. Did that class commentary come from a personal place for either of you?

Bustillo: For us, we don’t have any political message, we don’t think like that. For us, we’re just trying to make the best horror movie possible. Bintou, yes she’s out of the hood, but she’s still very stuck to the hood, she hasn’t moved cities or to another rich town. When you see her house, you can see the tower just behind her house.

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In France, in a neighbourhood like that, you can have this big, big tower, and then this little house, that’s very similar. It’s a cheap house, not an expensive house. It wasn’t a message for Julien and I, we are not politicians, we are just trying to make some horror movies, without message, sincerely.

You’re quite confident with Kandisha, showing her face early on. Can you tell me about developing her character?

Maury: We tried to have her character evolve through the movie, and to have the audience understand that the more she kills people, the more she levels up herself. She begins by being a sort of old woman under the sheet, and then she’s becoming the succubus, she’s more like a mermaid, very attractive, and to finish with the third phase, that was the monstrous part.

We wanted to show her very quickly. We are very fascinated with this character, and we wanted to place the audience into ‘What does she look like?’ and ‘What does she look like behind the sheet?’ We wanted the audience to think ‘The character is going to be like that, now this is the threat’ and the next death, she has a new appearance.

We wanted to surprise the audience with this, like she’s a metamorph, she’s capable of changing. This is the approach we used for the character.

Amelie, Bintou, and Morjana together looking into a bath in Kandisha

Kandisha, the monster, is very cool looking. Can you tell me about putting together that costume? Did you actually have the actor wear hooves?

Maury: We are children from the ’70s, and we grew up with horror movies with special effects made on set, practical effects with prosthetics and fake blood, so for us, that’s really important to our way of working. We believe that a good special effect is going to be more efficient, and secondly, it’s always better for our actors to react in front of a real creature. Not to have a tennis ball painted green and ‘OK, you have to imagine that it’s very scary’.

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For that aspect of the creature, we hired a real giant. He’s the second tallest man on Earth – the difference is just an inch! – he’s a very impressive guy. His name is Brahim Takioullah, we had these fake legs for him, and he did everything on set. It was all for real.

It feels like, from an outsider looking in, non-english language horror has gotten easier to make and distribute. There’s Shudder, and Netflix has a growing selection too. Has it changed much for you?

Bustillo: No [Laughter]

Really, we are in this business 15 years now, Kandisha was our fifth movie, and we shot just after The Deep House. And The Deep House is a more international movie, it has French producers but it’s shot in English, while Kandisha was shot in French, but honestly, it’s the same shit since our beginning.

It’s very hard for us to find some producers, to find more than three million euro to make a movie. All our movies are in the three million range, it’s very difficult for us to step above to grab more money. In France, all these movies are not working very well in theatres, they work in other countries.

Morjana in a darker shot, looking out at snow in Kandisha

In France, 15 years ago, journalists were talking about the new wave of French horror, us, Pascal Laugier, Alexandre Aja, Xavier Gens, and so on. Now, we’re like survivors, a lot of people make comedies or action movies, but not horror movies. There is now a new second wave in France, but it’s very shy.

There’s Teddy, this is a werewolf movie, and you have the second movie of Julia Ducournau, the director of Raw. That movie was released in France only recently, it’s called Titane, but it seems to not work very well in theatres, you know.

With lockdowns easing, people are heading back to theatres. What’s a cinema you’re excited to return to, or love being in?

Bustillo: Max Linder, for me, in Paris.

Maury: Max Linder is great, it’s a beautiful theatre. It’s the best screen in Paris in terms of quality of projection and in terms of sound. Worldwide, it’s kind of hard, we only know the theatres where we had our movies screened.

No worries – thank you both for your time, and good luck with the movie!

Both: Thank you!

Kandisha is available now on Shudder.