When we ran the trailer for David Morlet’s Mutants last week, I said, “[I]f you’re going to rehash a tried-and-true plot device, you should do it well.” That device, the viral-outbreak that causes horrific craziness as a substitution for the dead rising from the grave, is actually very well executed in Morlet’s film (that he wrote as well) — at least for most of it. It’s an uneven piece, but still a worthwhile one.
The story in Mutants is a pretty simple one — an unidentified virus breaks out and causes the infected to transform into screaming, raving, atavistic cannibals. A few things separate it from the conventional entries: there’s absolutely no history of either the outbreak, or the characters. After a fairly gripping opening sequence featuring a young woman running from the disturbing shrieking in the forest, we simply end up in an ambulance where a young couple, Sonia (Hélène de Fougerolles) and Marco (Francis Renaud) are driving, frantically searching for a safe haven. They’re accompanied by a SWAT officer, Perez (Marie-Sohna Conde), trying to make sense out of what’s happening and seeking NOA, a supposedly government-protected base that can serve as a refuge from the rampaging mutants. Eventually, the couple end up on their own after an altercation wherein Marco gets bitten, and they end up in an abandoned hospital, surrounded by a mutant-filled forest.
For the next 60 minutes, the film is absolutely chilling. It’s barely even a horror movie — there isn’t a constant barrage of mutant attacks or any action at all, really. It’s about Sonia and Marco coming to grips with the fact that Marco is changing, both physically and mentally. Slowly, perhaps, but it’s inevitable. The change apparently takes up to three days, meaning that this is, in essence, their last couple of days together. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying, and it’s filmed beautifully and with surprising poignancy. I was prepared for another zombie rampage movie, but what it really is (at least this part of it), is a movie about the horrifying decisions a person would have to make. There’s an obvious and cruel allegory to someone dying of sickness, and how heartrending that can be — those of you who have lost loved ones to horrible diseases like cancer may end up rather uncomfortable. Marco loses his hair, develops sores and lesions everywhere on his body, and is prone to terrifying seizures accompanied by bouts of bloody vomiting. It’s harsh, visceral stuff (the scenes, not the vomit — though that’s no picnic either), and it’s handled deftly by Morlet. It takes all of the awfulness of a degenerative disease, and hammers it into a weekend’s worth of time. It’s compounded by the changes in his mental state — he’s victim to uncontrolled fits of rage, and you can almost see the violence and unwholesome appetites seething beneath his sickly skin.
Of course, the other side of that coin is that Marco is not dying. He’s transforming, and when that transformation is complete, they both know that he’s going to become something unrecognizable and remorselessly tear the woman he loves apart. Therein lies the other emotionally bracing bit — his sickness isn’t going to kill him, it’s going to kill her, and she can’t bring herself to do what must be done. You’ll of course find yourself asking the same questions — questions which I honestly refuse to answer. This decision to focus on just two characters and their relationship is what makes Mutants so effective. Renaud and de Fougerolles are both excellent — desperate, normal people who have to make horrible decisions and are paralyzed by their own love and struggling with the truth amidst the nightmare surrounding them. Both know what has to be done, but they also know that these are their last days and hours together, and can’t make that first cut.
Unfortunately, eventually the film switches gears, introduces new characters and for the last 30 minutes, the story moves away from concentrating on the two of them, and enters a more standardized horror/action movie arc. There are gunfights and blades and narrow-hallway chase scenes, jump scares and near misses. While all of this is done fairly well, I was ultimately disappointed by the shift in tone. While it was perhaps inevitable that the world outside, full of hardened human interlopers and monstrous mutants, comes into play, the film is unquestionably at its strongest when it’s just Sonia watching Marco’s agonizing change from the man that she loves into a creature of gruesome appetites and with no semblance of humanity.
Two more things, one good and one bad. The cinematography is very impressive. Shot in a harsh winter in the French countryside, it’s a stark, cold setting that seems like the end of the world. Wide-angle shots of the hospital surrounded by forest, with the wind and that horrible screaming as the only sound are effectively creepy, and the cold, white sterility of the hospital corridors only compound the feeling, as do the dark and dingy basement scenes. The film is also incredibly gory, though not tastelessly so, if such a concept is possible. God knows how many gallons of blood are sprayed about, which of course creates a striking contrast the distinct whiteness of the setting. It is shot with a bit of blue hue to the lens, but it works here. So in addition to being somewhat emotionally difficult at times, if you’re on of the faint of heart, take note: there’s plenty of non-ironic blood and gore and organ meat flying around. It’s not the silly fake kind of bloody mayhem either. Furthermore, the pacing for the Sonia-and-Marco portion of the film is perfect — slow, deliberate, and gripping, intertwining shots of them huddled together with shots of the coldly beautiful and haunting outside world.
The bad part is in no way the film’s fault, and that’s the subtitles. The film is entirely in French, and the subtitles on the version that I saw were awful. It’s a recurring theme with many non-English language films, and it’s infuriatingly lazy and irritating. There are words that make no sense in the context, names are spelled differently at different times, and it really fucks up the flow of the film. I’m continuously baffled as to why this happens.
Mutants is 60 minutes of gripping drama and a story about love and loss hidden in a monster/zombie movie, followed by 30 minutes of a 28 Days Later ripoff. That final 30 minutes is still very good, and wildly entertaining and yes, even scary at times. But it pales in comparison to the story that precedes it, which was my favorite part of the film. Don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it though — Mutants is a smart, freaky, and well-crafted little film that fans of the genre will likely enjoy.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.