The Soul Eater (2024)

Adapted from Alexis Laipsker’s novel, and written by Annelyse Batrel and Ludovic Lefebvre, The Soul Eater is the latest offering from Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, who burst onto the scene with the infamous Inside (2007), a major title in the New French Extremity wave at the turn of the 21st century. Their work since, including blistering titles such as Livid (2011), Among the Living (2014) and The Deep House (2021), has demonstrated their willingness to push boundaries and step outside of convention. Theirs is a wholly distinctive approach to genre.

Part gripping police procedural, part Gallic Gothic shocker - with shadowy traces of Folk Horror present in some striking imagery - The Soul Eater follows two detectives who are sent to the sleepy French mountain town of Roquenoir. Elizabeth Guardiano (Virginie Ledoyen), an inspector in the National Police, is investigating a series of gruesome murder-suicides, and Franck de Rolan (Paul Hamy), a cop from the other French police service, the National Gendarmerie, is searching for several missing local children. Before long, the pair realise their cases are connected by whispers of an old folk tale about a malevolent creature: a terrifying demonic incarnation known as the Soul Eater.

With its troubling central mystery, deeply brooding, rural Gothic atmosphere, hostile, secretive locals, and haunted protagonists who seem trapped in a downward spiral into hopelessness, The Soul Eater is a compelling and deeply unsettling trip. Like much of the previous work of Bustillo and Maury, there is a strong emotional core with believable, flawed characters on a journey into absolute darkness, and an extreme, unflinching approach to depictions of violence and human depravity. A series of increasingly ominous twists thrusts the story into ever disturbing territory, and us along with it. When Elizabeth learns of the local legend of the Soul Eater, told to her by a traumatised young boy she finds hiding at the scene of his parents’ murder-suicide, the police procedural narrative seems poised to lurch into supernatural fantasy horror. However, the screenplay never goes where we expect, and keeps us on our toes and the edge of our seat, with its shoals of red-herrings and several further coiling twists.

The pair’s investigation leads them to an abandoned, secret-filled hotel, the closure of which sent the town’s population into decline. They encounter a lot of resistance from residents and police. Are the local police incompetent, or deliberately obstructing the investigations? The mayor also appears to harbour resentment towards the them as she believes they are not sensitive to the plight of the town. As the harried detectives, Virginie Ledoyen and Paul Hamy deliver convincing and quietly powerful performances as two characters who have more in common than either would care to admit. Both have dark pasts touched by tragedy and both seem to be motivated by more than just solving the cases. The third act presents some out of nowhere twists, but the direction of Bustillo and Maury, and performances of Ledoyen and Hamy, ensure proceedings lose none of the carefully crafted tension.

A searing, unsettling and brutally violent tale of grief, loss and corrupted innocence, which morphs and shifts and twists and turns all the way to its shocking, bloodily cathartic denouement.

The Soul Eater screened at Glasgow FrightFest on Friday 8th March.

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