Top 10 Horror Films from France

Once dubbed “new French extremity”, horror cinema in France has delivered some of the most disturbing and provocative films, influencing the mainstream & gaining worldwide critical and popular acclaim.

Livide (2011) - Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo's follow-up to 2007's Inside

Livide (2011) – Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s follow-up to 2007’s Inside

By the mid 2000’s, films from France were having a huge impact on the horror cinema landscape worldwide. Brave writers and directors were pushing boundaries like never before, producing films characterized by intense brutality and the bleakest brand of nihilism. The movement was dubbed, “New French Extremity”, a name that no longer accurately describes the subgenre which is no longer “New”.

The following 10 films represent some of the best examples of outstanding French horror.

Inside (Maury / Bustillo, 2007)

“À l’intérieur” (original title)
Inside (Maury / Bustillo, 2007)The plot-line for Inside is as simple as it is horrifying: A mysterious woman breaks into a pregnant woman’s apartment intent on removing the unborn baby from her womb with a pair of long sharp scissors. That’s all there is to it and the entire film takes place over just a few fateful hours. Even though the viewers know exactly what they’re in for, Inside takes its time, building up the tension and suspense until it’s almost excruciating.

Frontier(s) (Gens, 2007)

“Frontière(s)” (original title)
Frontier(s) (Gens, 2007)If you love horror movies and haven’t seen Frontier(s), I’m revoking your membership card. Hand it over! Frontier(s) is a “must-watch” if ever there was one. Yes it’s brutal and disgusting and unnerving, but it’s extremely entertaining with a crew of interesting characters. Director Xavier Gens proves himself to be a future horror heavy-hitter. In short: Take the best aspects of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Decent – and you’re still nowhere close. See this movie!

High Tension aka Switchblade Romance (Aja, 2003)

“Haute tension” (original title)
High Tension aka Switchblade Romance (Aja, 2003)Almost as good as Frontier(s), High Tension is another absolute must-see for discriminating horror aficionados. Roger Ebert disagreed calling it “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and that it has a plot hole “that is not only large enough to drive a truck through, but in fact does have a truck driven right through.” Forget about Roger Ebert (rest in peace big guy!) and take my advice: See this movie if you have not already.

Sheitan (Chapiron, 2006)

Sheitan (Chapiron, 2006)An Arabic word for Satan, Sheitan follows a crew of club-kids on an ill-fated trip to the country. On Christmas Eve, a few horny guys are invited home by a couple of smokin’ hotties. When they arrive, they meet Joseph, an unkempt and unnerving caretaker with something wicked up his sleeve. Joseph is played masterfully by Vincent Cassel (he’s also brilliant in Brotherhood of the Wolf) who steals the show, vacillating between a gentle, humorous personality and something altogether sinister.

Malefique (Valette, 2002)

Malefique (Valette, 2002)Mitch Davis of Fantastic Film Festival famously wrote: “Malefique almost plays out like an imprisoned Satanic variation of Cube by way of Hellraiser.” It’s a glowing review, for sure, but I don’t think it goes far enough in summarizing this claustrophobic fever-dream. Compared to Malefique, Cube is like an afternoon at Disneyland. Prison already makes for strange and terrifying bedfellows, so when a journal filled with black magic rituals materializes, the mix is dangerously volatile.

Them (Palud / Moreau, 2006)

“Ils” (original title)
Them, Iils. Great French Horror Cinema,Another great movie with an incredibly simple plot, Them focuses on a couple in a secluded home in the woods who are tormented by something in the darkness. Similar to The Strangers in the sense that its victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Supposedly based on real events, Them is so basic that it’s hard to write about it without giving the whole story away. This simplicity, however, does not affect this film’s effectiveness or its intensity.

Deep in the Woods (Delplanque, 2000)

“Promenons-nous dans les bois” (original title)
Deep in the Woods (Delplanque, 2000)A truly demented retelling of a familiar fairy tale, Deep in the Woods is another sexually charged, bloody example of amazing French horror. When a theater troupe accepts a one night gig at a private birthday party in an isolated mansion they have no idea the horrors that await them. Secret couplings and dark secrets are revealed, creating in-fighting that divides the group making them easy prey.

Martyrs (Laugier, 2008)

Martyrs (Laugier, 2008)Martyrs will hit you hard and keep you thinking for a long, long time. If you watch this movie, you will be affected. Word on the street is that an American remake has been in the works for years, but I can’t imagine anything that could improve on this masterpiece. What’s it about? A secret cult obsessed with the afterlife… and so much more.

The Horde (Dahan / Rocher, 2009)

“La horde” (original title)
The Horde (Dahan / Rocher, 2009)Imagine a cops vs. gangsters battle on par with The Raid that coincidentally coincides with the dawning of the Zombie Apocalypse. Sworn enemies must put their differences aside to combat a much greater threat. The Horde features some of the best zombie-mob scenes ever. The non-stop action and intense gore and violence will definitely please hard-core horror hounds, as well as fans of black comedy.

Irreversible (Noé, 2002)

“Irréversible” (original title)
Irreversible (Noé, 2002)I appreciate the bravery in both presentation and subject matter, but watching Irreversible is a singularly miserable experience. Most infamous for a 10-minute, uncut rape scene and reversed-sequence storytelling, Irreversible starts off disturbing and only becomes more tragic as the film progresses. While I certainly found this film borderline traumatic, fans of the most extreme examples of French cinema won’t want to miss it.

Written by Josh Millican

What do you think of the films we’ve picked? What is your favourite French horror movie?

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About the Author
Josh is the founder of Blood and Guts for Grown-Ups, a site dedicated to intelligent horror movie aficionados and is currently a staff writer for new horror site The Blood-Shed. Follow him on Twitter: @josh_millican

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  1. Dan Grant Reply

    Horror movies from France, at least imo, are just downright nasty. I first learned of Richard Grandpierre when I saw Martyrs. He produced three films on this list, in addition to Martyrs, he also did Ils (Them) and Irreversible. The man knows horror. For anyone who hasn’t seen these three films, especially Martyrs, top quote Sam Jackson from Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts. Martyr’s is a kick to the groin or the stomach. It just keeps coming at you until near the end when you don’t think one person can go through anymore pain and anguish, something horrifying happens. The visuals in this film are some of the most memorable and shocking images from any film I’ve ever seen. I almost had Martyr’s on the Canadian top ten as well because it was co-financed by Canadians. But I figured it would make a France list, so I kept it off. Glad I did. As for the rest of the list I’ve seen 7 of these and every one of them were violent and bloody and brutal. Excellent list, Josh.

    • Josh Millican Reply

      Thanks Dan! I agree about Martyrs–it’s just completely devastating!

  2. Jim DiCaprio Reply

    Good list. Martyrs is also a great film, not just a horror movie. Not sure Irreversible is horror, but DOBA. I think Frontieres is very underrated and Them was overrated. Horde is in queue!

    • Dan Reply

      Ooh! Them – “overrated” – I thought it was terrific – less baggage, more style/streamlined than other house invasion films.

      • Jim DiCaprio Reply

        Sorry…..that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla ice cream. I thought the resolution was dumb…ruined it for me.

        • Dan Reply

          It was inspired by a perceived threat from an out of control, feral youth. For me, there wasn’t a resolution…that’s what made it work. Its ambiguity was made more unsettling by the revelation of children at the heart of the terror.

          • Jim DiCaprio

            But the children might as well have been Jason. Or Pinhead. An unseen stalker…oh..and its children. Maybe my expectations were too high.

          • Dan Grant

            I understand the Jason/Freddy complaint, but kids were outta control. Kinda reminded me of Eden Lake, on steroids.

    • Callum Reply

      Them is definitely one of my faves from this list. Far better than the American pretenders such as The Strangers and the remake of Funny Games. Them and Eden Lake would make a perfect double bill.

  3. Dan Grant Reply

    How can them be over rated? I’ve never seen it mentioned on any list before. Them is the kind of film that is hard to find and I was lucky enough to stumble upon it. I think Them is disturbing. And it has that Grandpierre feel to it. Under rated imo. The “Scissors Movie” is how me and my buddy refer to Inside. Another blood soaked and very disturbing film. I really need to see Frontiers, I do NOT want my horror card membership revoked.

  4. Klownz Reply

    Really cool selection of modern French horror, nice list 🙂

  5. Dan Grant Reply

    It’s interesting to me that this site gets a lot of interest from horror lovers and yet it is the probably the most niche genre in the world. I love this feature as I am always looking for the next great horror film. These lists are giving me something to look for.

  6. Seeter Reply

    Great selection – Them and Inside are terrific while I’d recommend The Horde to everyone. Irreversible was tough to watch, I’ve never returned to it ( I’m not sure if that’s good or bad).

  7. Greg Reply

    In Their Sleep in my favorite French horror. It’s fantastically tense throughout.

    • Josh Millican Reply

      I’ll have to check it out. Thanks Greg!

    • Andrew F Reply

      In Their Sleep is brilliant. I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t remade it yet.

  8. Adrian Wallinger Reply

    In My Skin is a tough French horror film to watch and definitely part of this “new French extremity” you mention.

    • Andrew F Reply

      In My Skin is tough viewing. Strong stomach required.

  9. TK Reply

    I briefly dated a French girl who was a student at the university I was at in England. It was going okay so I decided wouldn’t it be a good idea to take her to see a French film at the local independent cinema. The film I chose: Switchblade Romance otherwise known as High Tension. Suffice to say, that was our last date…

  10. Dan Grant Reply

    I mean, how can you go wrong with a romantic film about switchblades? LOL

    • TK Reply

      I learnt my lesson. It was Love Actually, Sex and the City and Hollywood rom-coms after that.

  11. Rory Fish Reply

    The Belgians are just as bad (or good, depending how you want to look at it) as the French at this sort of thing – ie. uber violence – check out Calvaire if you don’t believe me!

  12. Michael Ewins Reply

    INSIDE. It’s actually my favourite adult horror film of the decade (a distinction I make because of the wonderful CORALINE).

  13. Dan Reply

    I certainly think Them deserves a place here but Haute Tension or, as it was known when I watched it in the UK, Switchblade Romance, was heart stopping stuff. The film simply never gives you an inch and the twists, turns and bloody violence don’t let up until the final reel. I think French horror in recent years has pushed the envelope as censorship has become more liberal and relaxed. For me, as someone who hates overt gore, many of these films unsurprisingly pass me by but anything that marries well constructed suspense with visual terror has the potential to be a great horror film in my book.

  14. Dan Grant Reply

    IMO, Martyrs is one of the most shocking films I’ve ever seen. Sorry if some of you haven’t seen it but this has to be said, [spoiler]when she is excoriated at the end, it literally made me gasp. That image of her just looking like sinew and bone and blood,[/spoiler] it’s something that hasn’t left my mind. A very disturbing yet powerful image.

  15. Dan Grant Reply

    Sorry, tried putting spoiler tags around it but it doesn’t work here.

  16. Theo gregson Reply

    Awesome list. Haute tension is one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. It introduced me to French horror and I’ve enjoyed films from France ever since. Deep in the woods and them are two of my other big faves.

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