I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, current European horror makes contemporary American horror look shameful. The films coming out of European countries — Spain, Italy, and, especially, France — are keeping the genre alive. I’m not saying all American horror is bad; that’s not the case at all, but the work coming out of the states, more often than not, pales in comparison. Where we seem to have embraced the audience aspect of horror (jump scares, gross out factor), the Europeans are crafting films that are terrifying in their intimacy. HIGH LANE, produced by French company Gaumont, is one of the more recent examples of this, and the results are exceptional. You can check out the spoiler-filled trailer if you want, but be warned, it really ruins a lot of the tension.
HIGH LANE begins with four friends going on a nature-filled adventure in the Balkan mountains. But this isn’t a “nature’s revenge” film like THE LAST WEEKEND; it’s more an “off the beaten path” flick like WRONG TURN. Unlike most American horror based on a similar premise, these friends aren’t out for booze-fueled humping. They’re just out to test themselves with some daring rock climbing. This cultural difference ends up strongly affecting the way you perceive these individuals, as personally, I didn’t want to see any of them die. They may live a tad more dangerously than most, but at least they express convictions, and their fate is not an enjoyable one to behold. And that, my friends, is how I want my horror: joyless. Call me a cynic, but this is the type of film I want to see more of.
What I really like about this film is how long it takes to establish itself as any type of traditional horror film — a sort of mash-up of CLIFFHANGER and JUST BEFORE DAWN. This split in genre modes reminded me of THE DESCENT, but unlike that film, I felt the second half of HIGH LANE was better executed. The mountain climbing scenes are harrowing to watch, and I have to assume skilled stunt men worked on the production or the actors happened to be professional climbers, as there is no way this footage was green screened. It’s all incredibly convincing and, honestly, far more intense than the actual horror elements that come into play later in the film.
That’s not to say that the second half is bad. Far from it, actually. The death scenes are well executed, and I did not notice a shred of CGI work, so if it was used, it was used properly and convincingly. These practical effects are used sparingly but when they appear they pack a punch, even though they’re not gratuitous or over the top. Even so, gore-hounds will find moments to savor, although I hope they enjoy the film for its other merits as well.
I’m not familiar with any of the cast, but all are competent. The majority seem to have worked in French cinema only, and not even horror films at that. Their performances had me caring about what happened to them, which is a rarity. Abel Ferry has made no previous feature films, so this is quite a debut. He keeps up the tension, offers up gorgeous vistas of the mountain setting, and does not hold back on the bloodshed when necessary. My one complaint is with a certain character’s flashbacks: they’re executed fine and are visually interesting, but they add little to the film and are more distracting than effective. But that’s a minor complaint, and Ferry is definitely on my list of filmmakers to watch.
HIGH LANE may not be the second coming of horror, and it doesn’t top other such films that’ve come out of France in recent years (INSIDE still being my favorite), but it stands nicely alongside the best of them. If you intend to check it out, I recommend NOT watching the poorly dubbed version available for streaming from Netflix; instead, rent or buy the recently released DVD.