Welcome to Screams Heard Around The World. In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
Movie: Sheitan (2006)
Watch If You Like: High Tension (2003), Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Feeling Bad
Carol Clover’s famed book Men, Women, and Chainsaws is known for its definition of the Final Girl. But what Clover also addresses in her book is horror’s constant struggle between city and country living, particularly in rape-revenge films. She puts in bluntly:
“People from the city are people like us. People from the county … (the rural Other) are not like us.”
They are either lone males or family groups with something inherently wrong with them. American films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes depict those who live in the countryside as demented and barely even human. American audiences are familiar with dangerous hillbillies and their violent proclivities. But this trope isn’t just explored in North America. Kim Chapiron’s (Dog Pound) 2006 film Sheitan offers a French attitude on the urban versus rural trope through a much more nihilistic perspective. Shockingly, it is also a Christmas movie.
Sheitan is part of the New French Extremity movement, which began after September 11, 2001 (I’ve discussed this in my previous column about Martyrs). It is a movement defined by fear of outsiders and pervasive sense of nihilism covered in bodily fluids. While Sheitan is part of this extreme subgenre, it does not rely on excessive gore. Instead, Sheitan leans more heavily into the twisted and disturbing angle of the movement, created a world that makes you feel dirty and itchy for watching.
Sheitan begins with a group of twenty-somethings getting kicked out of a club on December 23. Three men and two women are drunk, cold, and tired. The newest addition to their group, Eve (Roxane Mesquida, Fat Girl), offers to let them come and crash in her family’s country home. Excited at the idea of sleeping and partying in a giant house, they all jump in the car and get ready to spend Christmas together.
But Christmas is going to look a little different this year. Upon arriving at Eve’s home, they meet her eccentric groundskeeper Joseph (Vincent Cassel, Irreversible). He is overly excited with a smile that just a little too big and eyes that are a little wide. He has an air of strangeness about him, at least to these city kids. He shows them around the village, introducing them to a cast of strange characters that engage in bestiality and other repulsive behavior. As the day and night go on, things get progressively stranger as the clock inches closer to midnight. Joseph has another plan in mind for the city boys.
“[Sheitan] is not about killing, but about making the audience so deeply uncomfortable through language, story-telling, and urban shock at rural depravity.”
At first glance, Sheitan seems like a copy of Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, another New French Extremity film that takes place in the French countryside and features the rural versus the urban. However, where High Tension is drenched in viscera, Sheitan is covered in rotting food, dirt, and semen. It is not about killing, but about making the audience so deeply uncomfortable through language, story-telling, and urban shock at rural depravity.
In setting the film at Christmas and having its title translate to Satan, religion undoubtedly comes into play. During this time in France, the French were struck with the fear of the Other, which translates to fear of those from the Middle East. Not only had the United States experienced terrorist attacks, but Paris had, as well. The country was steeped with insecurity which often manifested as Islamophobia in both the real and cinematic world. Sheitan directly addresses this fear during a moment reminiscent of the dinner table scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As the group and Joseph shovel food into their mouths, they begin discussing the holiday and each of their relationships with God. Here, Ladj (Ladj Ly, Les Miserables) shares that he is Muslim. Yasmine (Leïla Bekhti, All That Glitters) also tells everyone she is Muslim, followed by Bart (Olivier Barthélémy, Mike) who reveals he converted to Islam. An awkward silence seems to fall over the table, despite half of their party identifying as Muslim. A tension blossoms between the idea of celebrating Christmas and learning that your friends are Muslim. But, it does not turn to violence or verbal altercations. Instead, Joseph laughs and calls Ladj a racial slur while laughing.
Sheitan is not interested in simply racially-motivated violence. Instead, it is a film that wants to interrogate the non-violent, yet aggressive ways that racism and Islamophobia manifest in everyday life. The film is named Sheitan, which importantly is the world for the Devil in Arabic. This title alone sets an expectation that the film is prioritizing, or at the very least emphasizing, the Muslim experience in France. Not only is the country dangerous for those from the city, but for those that identify outside of the hegemonic ideals of white society.
“While Sheitan does not sound like the most pleasant movie-viewing experience, it is a must-see for those who enjoy extreme cinema.”
Joseph then tells a story about worshipping Satan. At this moment, Joseph reveals he himself is a Satanist and he has some big plans to appease his dark master. Again, a religious tension develops between the love of God and the love of the Devil; this is not a holy place, Joseph has made sure of that. Sheitan does not just contain a commentary on the treatment of Muslims, but on the dangerous nature of religion, even if that religion does aim to spit in the face of God.
Yet, Joseph is not the only one capable of horrible behavior. Every single male character illustrates the degradation of society to something vulgar and sex-obsessed. Bart and his friend Thai (Nico Le Phat Tan) gossip about oral sex and speculate about Eve’s vagina. Ladj is cheating on his girlfriend while trying to hook up with Yasmine. All three men talk nonstop about getting women and how they want to use their dicks. While Joseph represents a stereotypically “uncivilized” person, these three men portray toxic masculinity and another idea of uncivilized. With these characters, the showdown between city and country becomes an even fight; neither have the moral high ground which speaks to the film’s nihilism. No one is the good guy. The New French Extremity on the surface may seem to be about gore, but it goes deeper than that. It digs into the monstrosity of humanity and puts in plainly on screen, making the audience squirm.
Tying everything together is Gallo’s psychotic performance as Joseph. He is able to quickly switch from jovial man to angry tyrant, creating a horrifying character that seems just seconds away from exploding. He is sinister, yet friendly, scary, yet welcoming. He is not the outright murderous redneck often seen in horror; he is something a little different, a little more complex, and perhaps a little more depraved.
While Sheitan does not sound like the most pleasant movie-viewing experience, it is a must-see for those who enjoy extreme cinema. It makes a name for itself amongst the New French Extremity for its shocking images despite a lack of gore paired with a totally unhinged performance by Vincent Gallo. While watching 90-minutes of bestiality, incest, and other abhorrent behaviors may sound exhausting, it still offers a crucial look to not only France’s attitude towards religion but also toward the relationship between city and country. Sheitan follows in the footsteps of previous rural horror films but pushes those narratives further, creating a warning about the psychotic hillbillies and drunk city kids that may lurk in the hills.