You don’t need to have lived in the proverbial middle of nowhere to understand the kind of terror Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s The Soul Eater mines from the fictional Roquenoix. As shot by Simon Roca, this remote hamlet in northeastern France isn’t a ghost town so much as a burial ground where humans and buildings alike are waiting to rot. A grandiose sanatorium once towered over the tree-shrouded hills, bringing in enough cash and tourists to fill the village’s coffers. But when a motorway was built across the valley, the tourists disappeared, the sanatorium was abandoned; and the few who stayed behind were left to wrestle with an ancestral legend and a series of murders that may or may not be connected with it.
The single most terrifying thing in The Soul Eater isn’t the titular devourer, but that spectral, lifeless town where its victims are stranded. This is no indictment of a film that’s only technically about a monster; if anything, it’s a testament to the filmmakers’ keen grasp of moods and textures, and their ability to wring genuine dread out of them. Based on a 2021 novel of the same name by Alexis Laipsker, adapted by Annelyse Batrel and Ludovic Lefebvre, the film weds a supernatural folktale to a real-life malaise. The Soul Eater touches upon many things, some unbelievable and others painfully plausible––none more pressing than the depopulation of rural communities, here posited as a catalyst for all the violence that ensues.
Sure, there may be very little in the way of innovation: the film doesn’t subvert or challenge genre tropes but happily grafts them onto a creature tale that gradually sheds its supernatural dressings to morph into a police thriller à la True Detective. Yet it also possesses the not-insignificant merit of never sagging under allegories or metaphors, all while dishing out some tried-and-true genre thrills. At a time when an ever-growing number of horrors seems to treat the genre as a vehicle to hammer home this or that Big Message about our zeitgeist, The Soul Eater’s anachronistic pleasures are a breath of fresh air.
This isn’t the first time Bustillo and Maury fish from lore. Their 2020 folkloric slasher Kandisha put a bunch of French teens up against its title character, a mythological victim-turned-demon from Morocco who operated on a male-only killing spree. Yet the film’s attempts to connect the bogeyman’s anti-colonial roots to conversations around Islamophobia and women’s rights were clumsy at best. Kandisha felt like a horror designed to sponge something of the discourse of its time; for all the gory deaths, striving for topicality made it a surprisingly tame affair. None of this concerns The Soul Eater, because the film doesn’t pretend to have much to say about the pestilential era we live in––it’s all the stronger for it.
You’ve heard this story countless, before anyway: a secluded community is haunted by a legendary beast; everyone in town has heard of it, but it is only after a series of violent deaths (and some mysterious disappearances) that people put two and two together. Married couples are found dismembered, their children vanished in thin air; shipped from Paris to investigate the murders is police chief Guardiano (Virginie Ledoyen), while the missing kids fall under the jurisdiction of detective de Rolan (Paul Hamy).
Even the two leads feel familiar. As written by Bustillo and Maury, Guardiano and de Rolan are closer to archetypes than flesh-and-bones characters, their backstories parceled out in evasive snippets. It’s a strategy that’s meant to keep you questioning their motivations but still responds to a predictable connect-the-dots exercise: whatever secrets the cops may hide from each other, they’re clues handed out to solve the case, not enrich or complicate their psychologies. That the two do not wind up as cardboard figures is courtesy the actors who embody them––chiefly Hamy, best known as the bird expert in João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist. Roca may not frame him as a martyr straight out of a Mantegna painting like Rui Poças did in that film, but The Soul Eater still gets plenty of mileage out of his growingly haunted glances. If his exchanges with Ledoyen feel largely rote––the script can’t seem to get past their power relations; she’s a hot-shot from the capital who doesn’t need a small-town cop to help her… until she does––Hamy is given a chance to square off with Sandrine Bonnaire, here serving as a glacial child psychologist, and the results are far more compelling.
Bustillo and Maury rose to fame (or infamy?) in the mid-2000s as additions to the New French Extremity, a wave of transgressive and unflinchingly violent films from auteurs as distinct as Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day, 2001), Gaspar Noé (Irreversible, 2002), and Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms, 2003). The joyful tale of a pregnant woman who spends her Christmas Eve running from another who wants to cut her open and claim the baby as her own, their feature debut, Inside (2007), was in turns repellent and uncompromising, a feast of viscera and gnarled flesh. Nothing farther from the prurience they observe in their latest. The Soul Eater is paved with deaths, but its violence has a cool, detached effect. This isn’t a horror powered by blood so much as its intimations, and the scariest moments are those that evoke gore via its absence––as when, in a key juncture, Guardiano and de Rolan visit a few ominously empty torture rooms. Even the monster is often reduced to a blurred hallucination by Roca’s penchant for shallow-focus shots, with much of the dread conveyed by Raphaël Gesqua’s synths-heavy score, a cavernous engine revving somewhere under the woods.
Yet the lack of shocks doesn’t make the terror any less effective. For all its occult trappings, The Soul Eater suggests that violence is never scarier or more incomprehensible than when it is waged among mere mortals. Hardly an original lesson, but originality is hardly the film’s concern. Formulaic as it may come across, this is a sleek genre exercise, a horror crafted not to peddle some profound meaning, but to frighten and delight.
The Soul Eater premiered at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.