THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTED (1980) – Halloween Month continues with a review of this French horror film. The Night of the Hunted was written and directed by Jean Rollin, who may be the definitive “love him or hate him” auteur.
My own view has long been that Rollin’s films are like projects David Lynch would direct from scripts by Anne Rice. I also believe that the often pedestrian translations of his movies into English accounts for why some viewers think his films are much less complex than they really are.
With The Night of the Hunted our man Jean departs from his usual tales of the undead and explores a different sort of horror. Brigitte Lahaie, the beautiful starlet of so many Rollin films, stars as Elysabeth, who is part of a pair of women on the run through the night-darkened roadways.
Neither she nor her sister escapee Veronique can remember their pasts, who they’re fleeing or even why they’re running from them. Elysabeth’s partner is recaptured first while Lahaie gets picked up and taken home by a horny Frenchman (Vincent Gardere).
Intrigued by Elysabeth’s predicament Vincent finds himself genuinely trying to help Elysabeth find out what is going on. They search for Veronique, who has already been returned to a hellish, top-secret mental institution filled with patients all suffering from the same pernicious amnesia that our two heroines suffer from.
When Elysabeth gets recaptured by the asylum’s sinister doctor (Bernard Papineau) and his sultry female accomplice Solange (Rachel Mhas) Vincent is on his own trying to infiltrate the institution while Elysabeth and Veronique struggle to escape. The minds of the victims erode at a frightening pace, eventually leaving them unable to even feed themselves.
The government is intentionally covering the whole thing up – both the mental illness and its epidemic proportions. Naturally there are sleazy interns at the insane asylum who try to take advantage of the increasingly helpless condition of the female patients. Those sleazeballs get theirs when some of the patients turn violent.
The governmental coverup angle of the storyline can’t help but put modern-day viewers in mind of The X-Files so fans of that series may enjoy this film. Rollin was always noted for his visual flair (to the point where his detractors say he just likes weird images for the sake of weird images) but in this movie he leaves his usual Gothic castles and ancient graveyards behind.
With The Night of the Hunted Jean Rollin treats us to a kind of “Industrial Gothic” look, for want of a better term. The coal-black skyscraper that serves as the institution/ prison for the illness’ victims is an incredibly striking image which captures the cold, sterile and horrifically “modern” nature of the film’s science-spawned horror.
That impersonal black structure is nicely complemented by Rollin’s use of railroad cars and factory chimneys as additional modern stand-ins for castles and graveyards. In 1980 the Holocaust invocations would have been even more obvious to viewers. Combined with the bureaucratic monsters we encounter in the film there’s a depressing Kafka vibe at work in the movie as well.
SPOILERS: The epidemic of this eventually crippling form of insanity was the result of an industrial accident involving bio-warfare agents. Untold thousands of people have been affected and the French government is keeping the accident as much a secret as its aftermath.
All those people exposed to the chemicals are being rounded up and incarcerated in the makeshift insane asylum. Once the disease takes its relentless course and leaves its victims as mindless shells the zombified patients are transported by train for wholesale slaughter and cremation.
Because this is a Jean Rollin film there’s male on female sex plus lesbian sex along the way to the bizarre ending. We’re supposed to believe that Vincent has fallen so deeply in love with Elysabeth that he chooses to gradually lose his mind with her rather than become part of the coverup.
The doctor shoots Vincent in the head with surgical precision, apparently lobotomizing him, and Vincent and Elysabeth stumble along the overpass holding hands as their minds die within them.
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