Horsehead Blu-ray Review

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A visual tour de force in this surreal horror fantasy from director Romain Basset

French director Romain Basset’s Horsehead is a surreal nightmare with cinematic sophistication. Gorgeously shot and put together with a masterful visual style, Horsehead is an ethereal journey through one woman’s feverish nightmares. A demonic-looking creature with a horse’s head stalks a young woman through her dreams, leading to terrible family secrets. Featuring well-known horror actress Catriona MacColl (The Beyond) and frighteningly convincing special effects, this fantasy thriller stands in a long line of cryptic European horror films dating back to the 1970s.

Horsehead opens with an incredibly haunting scene. An intimidating, horse-headed creature hides behind a curtain as a young woman cowers in fear. Having seen almost everything a horror movie can throw at a person, the creature’s grim visage still elicited some feeling in this jaded viewer. The best thing by far about Horsehead as a movie are its arresting visuals laden with symbolic metaphors and hidden meanings. This is horror fantasy with flair in the best tradition of surreal European cinema.

Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) has returned home for the first time in three years as Horsehead begins. Her mother Catelyn (Catriona MacColl) has asked the young woman to come home for her grandmother’s wake. There is some animosity between Catelyn and her daughter, they are not particularly close. Jessica has been studying the power of lucid dreaming in school. She believes it can be used to unlock a person’s mind and reveal hidden truths. Jessica begins to suffer from recurring nightmares of a horse-headed monster as her grandmother’s body resides in the next room. Jessica also starts seeing her grandmother in these disturbing visions.

Jessica thinks her mother may be covering something up about her grandmother. Jessica uses her knowledge of lucid dreaming to navigate through the horrific dream landscape she is experiencing in the hopes of finding answers. What dark family secrets will be revealed on this perilous journey? Who or what is the terrible creature stalking her dreams?

This is a film that rewards paying attention.

The nightmarish fantasy works with its arresting visuals and solid acting performances. The rich fantasy imagery in Jessica’s dreams greatly reminds me of Tarsem Singh’s better films. Horsehead does lose some coherence in the cryptic final act, awash in symbolic visual metaphors that have to stand in for dialogue that would more clearly explain everything that is happening. This is a film that rewards paying attention. It never underestimates its audience’s intelligence with lazy storytelling.

A psychology grad student could have a field day with the themes of Horsehead. The complex family dynamics between Jessica and her mother, not to mention her grandmother, are ripe for a thorough psychoanalytic exploration. Jungian archetypes and Freudian concepts lie at the core of Horsehead for those looking for deeper meanings in its narrative. There are hints of that structure laid throughout the narrative.

Horsehead is an intriguing horror film despite its art-house pretensions. The movie’s elaborate and terrifying visuals work well without a deeper understanding of its rich themes, while adding a layer of meaning for the more astute viewer. This is some of the best fantasy horror seen outside of Hollywood in some time.

Movie ★★★★☆

 

Horsehead Blu-ray screen shot 4

Horsehead’s unforgettable imagery looks nearly perfect on this Blu-ray edition from Artsploitation Films. Filmed with RED cameras, the French production has immaculate picture quality. The only thing keeping it from a perfect five stars is a suspect AVC video encode. Artsploitation Films has promised to switch to replicated Blu-rays for future releases but Horsehead arrives on a BD-R. The 95-minute main feature is saddled with a low-bitrate video encode that frequently dips into the single digits. That leads to rampant banding in a few specific scenes. It’s not a serious problem but one that should have been avoided on this beautiful looking movie.

Horsehead’s digital cinematography is an elegant, sumptuous experience that looks stunning at times. The strong clarity revealed in the 2.39:1 presentation includes razor-sharp definition and flawless detail. The usage of light and shadow is masterful, especially in the surreal dream scenes. This is one filmmaker to keep an eye on in the future.

The transfer is likely from a pristine digital intermediate. It hasn’t been processed beyond what was necessary for VFX and composite work. There isn’t a hint of unnecessary noise or aliasing in the video. Contrast and color saturation are fairly typical for a RED-shot production.

Video ★★★★☆

Horsehead arrives on Blu-ray with a menacing 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack bursting with surround activity. It acts as a fine companion to the impressive visuals, immersing the listener in a complete soundfield. The haunting score sparkles in perfect clarity. Surround cues show nice channel separation, adding to the listening experience. Bursts of strong LFE boost the low end. This is a strong, dynamic surround mix with a sizable bass presence. Horsehead’s effective audio helps set the right tone and mood with ease.

Optional English SDH subtitles appear in a yellowish font.

Audio ★★★★☆

Artsploitation Films has released a couple of different editions for Horsehead, including a special Blacklist package and 2-disc collector’s edition. They’ve taken a page from Arrow Video, including reversible art in a clear Blu-ray case. The normal retail package only includes the movie on Blu-ray. The other editions include a CD soundtrack.

The included four short films are a little strange as special features for Horsehead. They seem to have been included to fill out the disc, as they don’t directly pertain to the film. The hour-long making-of documentary is very extensive, going on the set with exclusive behind-the-scenes footage. Short of a commentary, it explains the film reasonably well from a technical perspective. Someone talking about the themes and complex visual metaphors would have been welcome.

Inside Horsehead (57:25 in HD) – This making-of documentary is mostly in French with English subtitles. An English speaker narrates between segments, linking together the different scenes. Both the director and lead actress make substantial contributions to this piece. They explain their reasoning behind the choices made in Horsehead. Like a lot of independent films, we get far more behind-the-scenes footage from the set in this documentary than we’d get from Hollywood. It’s pretty amazing how they achieved some of their visual design when the curtain is pulled back.

Four Short Films (10:50 in HD, 01:05 in HD, 06:46 in HD, 03:10 in HD) – The first short film is a strange vignette of a nasty encounter between a man and woman. All of them are arty shorts, likely student films. They don’t seem to have a direct connection with Horsehead as a movie.

Original Uncensored Trailer (02:21 in HD)

Artsploitation Films TrailersThe House With 100 Eyes (01:44 in HD), Der Samurai (01:55 in HD), The Treatment (02:16 in HD)

Extras ★★★☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process.

Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.