A rambling re-post from 2010.
Am I the only person who feels sorry for almost everyone in modern French horror films? I can't be, but at the same time I am questioning why these films are so effective for inducing sympathy.
Most of the modern French horror films that have been released in America share similar features. High Tension, Them, Inside, Frontier(s), Martyrs, and Calvaire are not long films. Not that most American horror films are long, but French horror uses their compact time frames to the advantage of good pacing, which is not the case with American horror (even if both Martyrs and High Tension get a bit clunky with their pacing towards the end). High Tension, Them, Inside, and Martyrs all use the scenario of home invasion for horror, even if Martyrs flips it, then re-flips it because it is the film's protagonists who are doing the invading. Frontier(s) and Calvaire are rural horror films where the protagonists are stranded in unfamiliar territory. Inside and Frontier(s) both feature the terrorization of pregnant women as well as Paris riots in the background (because, as a French professor once told me, "the French love to protest anything that upsets them", something also seen in the 2004 Chris Marker film Chats Perches).
There is not a lot of exposition to these films. Martyrs, yet again, is the only film with much exposition at all, and is the only film that uses flashbacks throughout the film. The uniting theme amongst all these films is random acts of violence (although High Tension and Inside, with their twist endings, can be debated on how random their home invasions and violence were). But with little exposition comes little character development, and it becomes not unlike the majority of American horror films, where we are just trying to watch people in terrible situations survive. Then why feel sorry for these characters? There is a natural sympathy towards the protagonists of Inside, Martyrs, and Frontier(s). These people are shown from the beginning to already be in horrible situations. In Inside, a pregnant woman gets into a car accident and her husband is killed; in Martyrs, a young girl escapes a torture facility and is put into an orphanage where she is still haunted; and Frontier(s), a group of friends escapes violent riots in Paris where the pregnant girl's brother is mortally wounded, and she has to leave him behind at a hospital because he urges her to run and escape the police. But the people in High Tension, Them, and Calvaire are just living normal lives before they are thrusted into bizarre, violent, and dangerous situations. High Tension of course is notable for being the first French horror import to America as well as its astoundingly stupid/borderline offensive twist ending. But the basic premise is two young women are terrorized by a killer while they are out of Paris for the weekend studying at the home of the second girl's family. Them is about a couple who leaves Paris for their weekend home in the woods and is terrorized by a mysterious group, apparently kids. It has a bleak ending, to say the least.
Calvaire, which isn't discussed as much as the other films I've listed, is just strange. Good, but strange and quite unsettling at times. The film is about a low-level, mediocre singer and entertainer who performs at retirement homes and other similar places. While on the way to a music festival of some sort before Christmas where he hopes to be noticed by a producer, his van breaks down and he is forced to stay in an lonely inn run by a former stand-up comedian whose wife left him many years ago. The singer walks around the village one day and comes across a group of men fucking a pig. If this isn't unhinged enough, the innkeeper becomes convinced that the singer is his returned wife, who was also a singer, and that he must keep him there by any means necessary. The singer finds no solace because the other people in the town, which seems to consist entirely of males, also believes that he is the innkeeper's wife. I am of the belief that the innkeeper's wife gave everyone in the small town syphilis, but nothing is said as to why everyone in the town is insane.
The single common denominator between all of the films is that their protagonists are all adults. Even the clearly young protagonists of High Tension, Frontier(s) and Martyrs are people in their early 20s, or at least no younger than 19. America and Japan seem to be the only countries where their horror films predominantly feature teenagers. Perhaps it is an age thing, but the older I get, the easier it is for me to sympathize with people who are closer to my age. Or maybe it is because most modern American horror films feature characters that are impossible to sympathize with or care about. It is as if the insufferable jerk amp is at 11. I understand that this is done so that the audience roots for the death of certain unlikable characters, such as Trent in the Friday the 13th re-make. And it isn't just the 00's films, although jerks in horror have gotten worse since the 70s or 80s. But it is at the point now where I find myself surprised when I feel pity or sympathy for a character in an American horror film. I've re-watched a few films in recent months, and I liked and felt bad for the group of kids in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as everyone in Wes Craven's New Nightmare; and despite knowing the ending because I re-watch the film almost every other year, I feel bad for Angela in Sleepaway Camp. There is the scene where Ricky's friend is playing "Guess who?" with Angela and covering her eyes and she answers "Burt Reynolds!" that I find to be sweet and endearing. But these are all films from the 80s and early 90s, and for various reasons, while not holding a rabid allegiance, I've always preferred the Nightmare on Elm Street series over Friday the 13th. If I have to be pressed, the only film from this past decade where I felt some pity for the characters is the House of Wax re-make, with maybe some of the kids in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane placing second. I don't know why House of Wax sticks out, although it is not a bad film. It's not like it had great characterization, but with the exception of Chad Michael Murray's character (and this may be a problem with separating the actor from his roles - although the actor seems like a douchebag, and the CW/WB has been typecasting him as the "bad boy" since the Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls days), I thought the characters were decent and fairly normal kids. They were friends, and there wasn't a lot of backbiting except from Chad Michael Murray's character. Yes, even Paris Hilton's character was likable, even if it was a sort of parallel-universe version of her, where some of her known or perceived personality traits were there, but in a character who was just upper-middle class instead of an heiress.
I am not sure there is a direct answer as to why the characters, and even some of the villains in modern French horror films are easy to sympathize with. Overall, they seem more human and the French do not feel the need as much to stick to the archetypes that come from American horror and slashers, whereas in America, we built them and deconstruct them only to make slightly different versions of the same thing to adapt to changing times, ad nauseam. There's an odd comfort in the archetypes, sure, but at the same time even the attempts at deconstruction are becoming tedious, especially when at best, there are only small changes in archetypes or expectations being made.