In the space of four years—1989 to 1992—three French-language films were released that were truly remarkable in their genre ferociousness and jet-black humor. I saw one theatrically, the other two on video, but the impact they had is still imprinted on my memory.
Baxter (1989) is based on American writer Ken Greenhall's 1977 novel "Hell Hound," and tells the story of the miserable life of a bull-terrier whose misanthropic and hateful thoughts are audible to us on the soundtrack. He is given to an old woman by her daughter, and he loathes her. He wants a more structured, active life and the old lady just wants him to take baths with her. He longingly watches the young couple across the street, wishing he could live with them, so he decides to kill his elderly owner by knocking her down a flight of stairs.
His wish comes true—he goes to live across the street, but when the couple has a baby boy, the infant becomes the focal point in their lives. Baxter realizes he must takes matters into his own...paws, so he pushes the baby into a backyard pond. Unfortunately for him, he barks for "help" too soon, and the child is rescued. The couple is traumatized, though, and they decide to give Baxter away to erase the memory of the traumatic incident.
He next finds himself in the care of Charles, a sadistic, disturbed kid and his aloof parents. Charles is a real mess—he's obsessed with Adolph Hitler and takes out all his pent-up hostility on the dog. Surprisingly, Baxter responds to this harsh treatment, but when he mates with a bitch (whose owner reminds the kid of Eva Braun) and a litter of puppies is born, Charles kills them. Later, he orders Baxter to kill another boy, but the dog refuses, and the battle for dominance well and truly begins.
This is grim, existential stuff. Baxter's musings, voiced in an angry growl by Maxime Leroux, are obscene and hate-filled (he calls the infant a "disgusting bag of flesh"), and Francois Driancourt is pretty amazing as the young Nazi in training whose angelic face conceals a jet-black soul. And the dog is certainly as much of an actor as anyone else in the cast! Bleak stuff, with appropriately color-drained cinematography and a minimalist score, Baxter is a reminder of the horrors that can lurk in seemingly-normal places and hearts.
1990's Baby Blood features another creature that shouldn't be able to vocalize. This time it's a baby/monster still in its mother's womb. The plot is set in motion when a new leopard arrives at a French circus, but its new owners are unaware that there's some kind of alien thing inside the animal. It bursts out of the leopard and burrows into the body of pregnant circus employee Yanka (Emmanuelle Escorrou). The fetus becomes quite a bloodthirsty chatterbox, ordering its mother to kill to satisfy its voracious appetite for blood.
Yanka's victims are all ugly, stupid men (would be rapists, her abusive boyfriend), and she gains strength with each kill. She also develops a love-hate relationship with the thing growing inside her, tolerating its inappropriate questions and keeping it well-fed with the red stuff. It's a tongue-in-cheek splatterfest that's reminiscent of a French-accented early Peter Jackson movie. Besides the gory murders, there are two Alien-style birthing scenes.
Escourrou is quite effective as the murderous mommy, and the voice of the fetus (said to be supplied by the film's director Alain Robak) has been described as "Eddie Munster on laughing gas." In the English-dubbed version, which I haven't seen, it's rumored that Gary Oldman provided the creature's voice!
I originally saw the film on a fourth-generation "gray market" video I picked up at a collector's show, but Anchor Bay released the restored, subtitled version on DVD in the U.S. I'll have to check it out. Escourrou went on to star in Lady Blood (2008), reprising the character of Yanka but now as a cop investigating a series of cannibal murders. Now that's strange.
1992's Belgian production Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary about a film crew following a serial killer around as he practices his craft. Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde) is certainly a cheerful murderer. He expounds on philosophy, art and culture, loves his family and enjoys playing music in his spare time.
Poelvoorde is hilarious as the arrogant, egotistical killer, treating his compulsion like a nine-to-five job. Scenes played with his real-life family (playing his onscreen family) are shot through with sunny normalcy. Evidently, his relatives didn't know that he was playing a serial killer during shooting! He provides tips on how to dispose of bodies, especially the proper ways to weigh them down when submerging them underwater so that they don't rise to the surface.
Ben loves having the crew around—they're an audience for his exploits and he puts on a real show. A comic highlight occurs when they run into another crew following a different killer—and Ben scoffs because they're using videotape to save money!
Of course, it's an absurd idea to have a camera crew following a murderer and documenting his nasty needs, but the filmmakers were talented enough to give their movie a rough realism that works. And while you may not necessarily be charmed by Ben, you're taken in by his unexpectedly cheerful demeanor. Eventually the crew becomes financially dependent on Ben when their money runs out, and they even become active participants in his crimes.
As the viewer, you too find yourself feeling guilty for laughing at the jet-black humor, forgetting momentarily that you're enjoying the exploits of a seriously twisted individual and a morally suspect group of filmmakers who do nothing to stop him. The killing themselves are violent and shocking, and by the time the crew actively participates in the rape and disemboweling of a young couple, they realize what they've become—and so does the viewer. That's what works so brilliantly.
I first saw Man Bites Dog during its arthouse theatrical run, but when it came to home video, it was released in multiple versions: R-rated, unrated and NC-17. The NC-17 version is the one to seek out for maximum impact. Ironically, the unrated cut is edited. It's certainly not for everyone, but it's frightening in its prediction of the steady stream of reality shows filling up the television schedules that keep getting uglier and more extreme. How long will it be until "Man Bites Dog: the Series" becomes a regular program on cable?