A young woman escapes a kidnapping by two serial killers and must evade them in a forest overnight...
Shudder is good with horror. At time of writing, audiences are still trapped inside due to a pandemic, so what better way to escape than 11 weeks of exclusive original films? And who better for a killer-in-the-woods yarn than the acclaimed French director of an Academy Award-nominated animation set during the Iranian revolution?
Vincent Paronnaud, who adapted the graphic novel autobiography by Narjane Satrapi Persepolis (2007), has now made a trippy psychological revenge horror. Socio-political context may be worlds apart but the theme of one woman’s personal journey through a patriarchal hell, forged into something stronger, is universal. Sounds like the arc of every Final Girl; a structure so reiterated it’s as recognisable as folktales like Little Red Riding Hood. Paronnaud and co-writer Léa Pernollet are addressing that age old narrative of woman as prey. But as the IMDb summary so smugly outlines: “Man chases Woman—nothing new. Or is there?”
Hunted starts with an ordinary night out as Eve (Lucie Debay) takes a chance with flirtation in the back of a stranger’s car when another man suddenly settles into the driver’s seat. After ‘The Guy’ (Arieh Worthalter) proposes a threesome with his ‘Accomplice’ (Ciaran O’Brien) and pulls out his video camera to capture her dawning awareness of helplessness, Eve is soon taken deep into the wilderness.
Thank God this isn’t just another rape-revenge film. I dreaded a simple update on I Spit on Your Grave (1978). It’s 2021 and I’m done enduring 70-minutes of explicit degradation for a last act of female empowerment. The entrapment is difficult realism but a bizarre incident flips both their car and their world upside down and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game becomes an exhilarating chrysalis as both predator and prey turn animalistic to survive. Character arcs and tonal shifts are two entirely different things; the actors all deliver exceptional performances, but our journey with them is heavily distorted by Paronnoud’s experimental direction. You’ll get it at the ‘end of the world’ sequence that twists a realistic portrayal of victim and assailant into larger-than-life archetypes. Then things get weird.
The Guy, the universal evil that lurks within all men, and Eve, the Biblical first woman. Rather than build upon the story structure, Paronnaud and Pernollet are stripping it bare as a retelling of Man and Woman after temptation corrupted and forced them out from Eden into the wild. But wile the reach is epic, the execution is imperfect. Hunted’s vivid hallucinogenic cinematography often feels an empathic distraction rather than a visual extension of the characters.
Eve’s backstory is also thin and Debay draws upon primal emotions to deliver a phenomenal performance of raw undomesticated power. From the tearful passiveness of her kidnapping through ‘going native’ as a raging force of nature, Debay turns her role into such a feral totality that she blows away all expectations of a predictable finale. Eve represents a fascinating feminist approach in the forging of Final Girls; transforming far beyond survival into selfless tools of retribution.
Swords are tempered to be durable, with sequels like Halloween (2018) we’re shown this process in female recovery can take decades. The horror climax is the quenching stage; incredible heat and then the rush into water, oil, or even blood, forges a deadly if brittle blade. Hunted excels in the distinction of the revenge story; Eve’s arc isn’t girl-to-woman but woman-to-weapon as she undergoes a psychological journey from surviving nature to becoming one with it to destroy her enemies.
The Guy is where I struggle to fully enjoy any of that in Hunted. Worthalter brings a stomach-turning masculinity to bare; feigning an intimate charm with such revolting inelegance, the only game of seduction for him is teasing out that first ‘no’ from a woman. Then he starts having fun. As the embodiment of misogyny, he’s repellent onscreen, which is good, but Paronnaud insists on spending more time with him than the protagonist!
RogerEbert.com’s critic Brian Tallerico called him a “bad riff on Quentin Tarantino”, and while his disingenuous pontificating reflects the very real equivalent found in the world, the sheer amount of screen time refining his character is trying to endear us to him. Not with his beliefs, but his performance as if staging him to become a cinematic representation of evil next to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) or The House that Jack Built (2018). These films maintain a strict tonal narrative that reflects the antagonists, Hunted feels more as if A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) opened with a 20-minute sequence of Freddy molesting a child and then expecting us to have fun with the colourful dream sequences right after.
The Guy’s relationship with the Accomplice is a fascinating pathology, relishing dominance over even the pliable submissive men he’s teaching his unique worldview. Names don’t matter as O’Brien’s multifaceted character hates being called by his last accomplice’s name; one he also uses for a stranger found later. The Guy considers himself a director and every actor obviously must share his delusional need for sexual violence. The Accomplice represents the terrible reality of desperate men revering the freedom via domination that pickup artists promise. He’s just as uncomfortable as Eve is when she’s around The Guy, but that surely means he’s not toughened up yet; he’ll laugh when prompted, even kiss when intimidated, but his behaviour in the woods reveals a fragility The Guy believes only women should be burdened with.
After collaborating with Satrapi again for the well-received Chicken With Plums (2011), Paronnaud contributed in the anthology Asylum: Twisted Horror and Fantasy Tales (2020) which wasn’t well-received—although short “The Cleansing Hour” would become a great Shudder feature! With Pernollet having only written shorts prior, this marks their debut horror movie. And while a tremendous effort, it shows the strained fluidity between movements. There are several concepts all fighting for dominance between Eve and The Guy’s stories to the folkloric homages; Little Red Riding Hood the most obvious in a visual trick already done perfectly in Hard Candy (2005), but the real inversion is The Three Little Pigs. The wolf, now a pig (har-har), displaying his inherent male ferocity from scenario to scenario, the last victim’s home security is a wolf of her own.
Hunted feels itself still in the quenching process. I’m left both impressed and underwhelmed by the craftmanship even if the film left me feeling something. From a director of the inspiring female story Persepolis and the female voices of Debay and Pernollet, the same gut reaction that told me Hunted was only alright is insisting that I recommend it. I know there are women in the horror fandom that love revenge stories and this could well make you want to lose yourself in the wild and scream your heart out.
BELGIUM • FRANCE • IRELAND | 87 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Vincent Paronnaud.
writers: Vincent Paronnaud & Léa Pernollet.
starring: Arieh Worthalter, Lucie Debay, Ciaran O’Brien, Jean-Mathias Pondant & Kevin Van Doorslaer.