Contributor; London
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Franco-Belgian co-production The Pack nestles into the recent wave of extreme French horror alongside the likes of Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance/High Tension) and Martyrs somewhat uneasily. A superb cast featuring the Dardenne Brothers' Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) and the wonderful Phillippe Nahon betrays its lofty ambitions within the genre. Yet, a disjointed narrative and a confused positioning thwart the enjoyment.

In a familiar set-up, Charlotte (Dequenne) picks up a hitchhiker on a desolate country road. When they stop for a coffee at the grimy cafe La Spack, they're accosted by a trio of bikers. Having previously had a run-in with Charlotte at a roadside snack stop, they're intent on wreaking all sorts of unpleasantness. The proprietor (Yolande Moreau) steps in and sends the trouble-makers on their way. But when hitchhiker Max (Benjamin Biolay) vanishes from the gents, Charlotte decides it's up to her to investigate... When she wakes up bound and caged in a filthy, run-down farm building it's clear this isn't your run-of-the-mill cafe. Suffice to say, things only get worse from here on in.

 Writer-director Franck Richard should be given credit for trying to bring something fresh to his backwoods horror, mid way through knocking on the door of both zombie flicks and creature features with a supernatural gear change. It's a set-up of the old-school variety - he explicitly nods to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - which morphs into more than just a case of some dodgy country folk butchering people in the outbuildings. Although shot through with a darkly fascinating and relentlessly bleak vision of the isolated landscape, Richard's film never quite engages. We've seen these misty, grey backwaters countless times and there's something of a kitchen sink approach to the way he depicts them. Ramshackle outbuildings? Check. Sawed up human remains? Check. Acid bath? Check. Old man who's not quite as dumb as he appears? Check.

Dequenne is criminally underused, a fine, mysterious heroine for the first half an hour, then all but abandoned for the rest of the narrative. Sure, she's physically there, but that's it. With so much potential to explore her character it seems a shame to give up so early. Likewise the rest of the cast are given scant room for any depth to be established, as the episodic structure sends us lurching from one barmy set piece to the next. Allegiances are made, then dispatched in seconds, and the bikers (who make a brief reappearance) are caricatures that sit uncomfortably with the grim, near social realism of the opening in particular.

The Pack does have some memorable, striking shots (beware the moon...) and suitably gory moments. So too it continues a tradition of extreme cinema following through with its singularly grim trajectory to the bitter end. Overall though, Richards flirts with far too many sub-genres whilst never truly satisfying any of them. It's a prick tease of a movie.

The Disc

Not much in the way of extras. You get the trailer and a brief featurette with graphic artist Graham Humphreys, who designed the rather nice DVD sleeve artwork. It's short but enlightening, though it would have been nice to spend a bit more time in his company.

The Pack will be released on DVD by Icon Home Entertainment on 4th July 2011.
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