A young woman returns home to her estranged family after the death of her grandmother. Not only do the nightmares that have plagued her since childhood get worse she becomes physically ill and is bedridden with a high fever. She uses this as an opportunity to use lucid dreaming, (and frequent doses of ether), to try to get to the bottom of her nightmares and what it means to her and her family.And the deeper she probes into these mysteries, most of which involve her grandmother’s legacy, a mysterious key and a horseheaded figure, the more sinister things become both in and out of her dreams.
Shot under the title Fièvre, Horsehead isn’t so much a narrative film as a fever dream caught on film, a study in delirium that feels like something one would have seen from Argento or Mario Bava in their prime. The sets and photography are both stunning adding a layer of unreality to not only the dream sequences but what is going on in the real world. And as the film goes on and the line between the two starts to blur and fade away this becomes more and more important.
As you may have guessed from the first two paragraphs the film’s script is anything but a black and white affair. Nothing is clear and very little is what it seems to be at first glance. It’s often not clear if Jessica is awake, dreaming or simply insane. And since much of the narrative takes place in drug enhanced fever dreams there is little room for conventional logic and narrative, things are intentionally strange and logic purposely fractured. Of course this can make it hard to tell if something is meant to be that way or the result of plot holes and the film does have some issues with it’s internal logic at times.
The cast is small and anchored by strong performances by the three leads, Catriona MacColl, veteran of several of Fulci’s classics brings a nice layer of menace to the role of the mother, leaving us unsure of her real motives throughout the film. Murray Head, (yes the guy who sang One Night in Bangkok), is solid as her stepfather. But it is Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux as Jessica that holds the film together. She gives a great performance, even more impressive given her short list of credits, and is incredibly beautiful and frequently undressed. That may provide some compensation to those who find the film’s bizarre plot and leisurely pacing less than satisfying.
And that is where a lot of people will have issues with Horsehead. It is anything but fast paced and short on gore or in your face scares. It’s a deliberately paced exercise in unease and tension. Filled with symbolism and references to paganism and mythology it’s a film much more of the art house than the grindhouse. The plot is at times very vague and even at the film’s end many questions are questions are left unanswered. It’s not a film for those who need their film to provide all the answers and wrap everything up neatly, it’s one that makes the viewer think and pay attention to what they are watching, something that’s in short supply in the genre lately.
Horsehead isn’t for everyone, but for those up for a cerebral piece of art horror that brings back memories of some of the more psychedelic European genre films of 70s it’s a natural choice. I enjoyed this film a lot more than I thought I would, and if you give it a chance and work with it, you might too.