Ready for a deeply disturbing twist on Red Riding Hood? Then, you won’t want to miss Vincent Paronnaud’s Hunted.
This haunting offering begins at the side of a campfire, the crackles of the wood and the orange light flickering on the face of a young boy as his mother tells a fairy tale of suffering, attempted murder, and survival. She concludes with a warning: “The company of wolves is better than that of men.”
From there, we leap to Eve (Lucie Debay), a modern woman with a micro-managing boss, who is on her last nerve. She just wants a drink at a bar to unwind, when she’s approached by a creep who thinks a slick line and a free mojito is all he needs to have his way with her. Eve knows to be cautious of such men. Yet, even her wariness won’t save her from a nightmare that spills from the bar into a car trunk, into an untamed forest, and beyond into spaces more civilized yet no less vicious.
In the vein of Killing Ground, Hunted finds its horror in a true-to-life scenario. Eve is presented as an average woman, who has frustrations at work, a thirst for simple pleasures, which include lust for a handsome man (Arieh Worthalter) who seems—at worst—a white knight. However, giving benefit of the doubt to the wrong guy has her racing through the woods, desperate to survive. He and his accomplice won’t give up their prey easy, so she—in her bright red winter coat—must make leaps from certain death to potential death, and that’s just the start. She must seek aid, shelter, food, and all while dodging a man who would make her torture and eventual murder into a snuff film he can replay with relish.
The script written by Paronnaud, Léa Pernollet, and David H. Pickering is smart and sickening. The dialogue at the bar feels familiar, the kind many women have heard countless times before. Eve is thinly sketched as a character, but that’s because most of her screentime has her pitched into primal kill-or-be-killed mode. It works. Paronnaud keeps us with her through moments of disaster and seeming salvation, so close that we can hear her breaths of agony and relief. Thus, each cruel twist of fate stings like a jagger bush ripping through exposed flesh.
While the premise might seem thin, the screenwriters weave unpredictable paths for this game of cat-and-mouse to race down. Paronnaud does so with a ruthless pace that keeps audiences nestled in frenzied anxiety, much like our heroine. The handsome man might offer charm and smiles, but he is Chechov’s gun. We know he’ll go off, even when his soon-to-be-victims do not. This makes for mind-gnawing, nail-biting suspense. Then, comes a cathartic third act, where the tables are turned and predator becomes prey. During this section, the knot my body had become sprang into action. I was so engaged that I was literally screaming at my screen in encouragement and frustration as if my shouts could aid Eve and her lone ally.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll say this: the cast is sensational. Into a world of primal screams and horrifying inhumanity, they bring nuance with crooked grins, telling glances, and a tender but trembling outstretched hand. Worthalter is terrifying as the handsome man, not only because of how ghoulishly he sinks his teeth into the part of a gleeful killer, but also because of the smarmy charm he oozes, which is noxious yet intoxicating. With rugged good looks and that look in his eye, you can understand why Eve followed him to a second location.
As for Eve, Lucie Debay turns in a performance that is a force of nature. She transforms before our eyes from a lip-biting modern woman to a lost girl racing through a hellscape, to something more ferocious and feral. She is a vision of vengeance and violence, and the turn is both tragic and absolutely captivating.
In short, The Hunted is not for the faint of heart. Its brand of horror is not the heightened stuff of gothic ghosts or gruesome fun of slashers. Instead, Paronnaud exposes the true-to-life horrors of rape culture with a scary story that feels frightfully real.
Hunted was originally reviewed out of Nightstream 2020. It can now be found on Shudder.
Header Image Source: Shudder