Young care worker Lucie spends her first day on the job with her boss, Mrs. Wilson, learning the ropes as they travel from house to house of each elderly patient. The final house of the day is a labyrinthine estate belonging to a comatose 100 year old Madame Jessel, a once famed ballet teacher. Mrs. Wilson tells her of treasure rumored to exist somewhere within the confines of the decaying mansion, though she herself has never found it. When Lucie relays this to her boyfriend, he’s enthusiastic about retrieving the treasure. Initially repulsed by the idea, Lucie wavers when she discovers her father is already moving on from her recently deceased mother. Lucie, her boyfriend, and his brother set out for the Jessel mansion on Halloween night; sure their search will go undisturbed while the mansion’s only inhabitant remains in a vegetative state on the top floor. Of course, they find more than they bargained for.
The story is bare bones, and at first glance appears to be no different than a multitude of haunted house films before it. Genre fans will notice influences and nods to other classics, most notably Halloween III, Bride of Frankenstein, and Susperia. The actors who play the would be thieves maintain an affable camaraderie that connects with the audiences enough despite limited development. The directors prove they’ve done their homework, using the most successful elements of the haunted house sub-genre.
Co-directors Julien Maury and Alexander Bustillo take painstaking measure to create a unique atmosphere within each room of the manor our leads explore. The trio must conduct their search using only the light of their flashlights to navigate, casting shadows throughout in exquisite imagery and mood. The further into the mansion they get, the more Madame Jessel’s history is revealed, particularly as a sadistic ballet instructor with a mute daughter. The décor becomes a lot more bizarre as well, taking a love of taxidermy to a strange new level. Only when the leads discover the room belonging to Jessel’s daughter is the beautiful Gothic mood broken and the power within the house unleashed at last.
From the creepiest tea party ever, automatons, malicious music boxes, to vicious ballerinas, the film transcends its beautiful and creepy visuals into a surreal, violent fantasy. What haunts the Jessel mansion isn’t ghosts; but rather a unique twist to a familiar horror trope. The final moments end up disappointing as it jumps fully into artsy fairy tale.
Maury and Bustillo should be commended for creating something so vastly different from their first outing, 2007’s fan favorite Inside. The expectations were high that their sophomore outing would be very similar in intensity and gore, disappointing many at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 when they found a film much more in common with Guillermo del Toro’s work. Though Dimension purchased the distribution rights prior to the films premiere at TIFF, it was never released in North America save for a few film festival screenings. News came in April 2012 that a remake by French distributor SND Films was moving forward, but nothing has been reported since.
Aside from similar themes of motherhood and a story told within the confines of a house, Livide in not meant to be similar to Inside. Maury and Bustillo wanted to stretch their story telling limbs and take on a rather dark, adult fairytale. In that, they’ve succeeded. Gorgeous visuals, a haunting soundtrack, and a lush atmosphere make up for narrative short comings and a weak final scene.