These last couple of years we've been spoiled by the French horror scene. It all started with Haute Tension, followed by a solid body of work containing Ils, A l'Intérieure, Frontière(s) and Martyrs. It was almost impossible for the new batch to live up to the expectations, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that in the end they didn't. Proof is found in the rather long waiting time for their actual releases. Lukewarm receptions at film fests and the local market have been hindering international availability.
Mutants is the first entry in the French zombie genre, though true fans will point out that Mutants doesn't have any actual zombies. The infected aren't actually dead and act more like dogs with rabies than the sludging zombies of yonder. Think along the lines of 28 Days Later, a good companion piece for Mutants, as it also shares a somewhat similar deserted setting.
Morlet takes a flying start and catapults you right into the action. In the first 10 minutes the setting is sketched, though any concrete details remain absent. We don't learn much except that there was an outbreak of a rather hideous virus, turning normal people into fierce cannibals. There is a rumored safe base though nobody knows how real it actually is. Apart from that, there's snowy mountains and the occasional survivor. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but a nice setup for a genre flick nonetheless.
Visually Mutants remains close to its peers. A gritty, grainy and dark look, making maximum use of the contrasting snowed-down landscapes. Blood has an eery black color, dirt and decay is everywhere and the creature effects are top notch. Morlet uses a monochrome color palette with lots of grey/blues to give his film an extra dreary dimension. Camera work is pretty vivid and shaky, though done in a solid and believable way. Nothing to complain about here.
The soundtrack is effective though sometimes a little underplayed. Most scenes are set to some subtle ambient soundscapes, often hardly audible but subtly raising the uneasy feeling in a good selection of scenes. Acting is decent enough, though some of the secondary characters are a little odd, unfitting or even unneeded. The main characters are putting in good performances though, displaying a vivid sense of urgency.
Even though the film bursts open right away, the first half of Mutants is actually spent with only two characters and very little action. We see how one of the characters is affected by the virus, turning into a full-fledged mutant, while his wife (a medic by profession) does everything to save him. Around the halfway point a group of survivors enters the film, bringing with them a more action-filled second part, though still keeping a tight focus on the emotional undercurrent.
Those expecting lots of action, bucket loads of gore and continuous high tension will feel a little underwhelmed. Mutants is a more downplayed experience that skillfully crafts a heavy atmosphere, weighing down on the viewer. Compared to its big brothers, it's nowhere near as gripping or extreme, but on its own it's still a great zombie flick with a sublime finale. One for the fans, just don't expect another masterpiece.