2½ stars (out of four)
At one point in "Calvaire"--a stylish, nasty, very well-done Belgian horror movie about a lounge singer lost in a forest full of cretins, perverts and madmen--one of the human monsters dreamed up by director/co-writer Fabrice du Welz gets swallowed up by the earth. It's a striking scene but hardly the most sadistic in "Calvaire" ("The Ordeal"), which is a shocker of almost stomach-heaving grimness and intensity.
It's another of those movies, like "With a Friend Like Harry " or "Lemmings," where that sullenly handsome little actor, Laurent Lucas, gets put through the wringer. Here, Lucas, as Marc Stevens, an itinerant lounge singer, has his van break down in the Belgian backlands of Fagnes, where he runs into a dopey-looking guy named Boris (Jean-Luc Couched), forlornly hunting for his dog. Soon, Marc is ushered into a shabby inn run by the demented M. Bartel (played by ex-rock critic and novelist Jackie Berroyer, and named, I would suspect, after the late Paul Bartel, American director of the cannibalism comedy "Eating Raoul"). And he's trapped in a mad nightmare with a deranged backwoods bunch (including macho-man Philippe Nahon of the Gaspar Noe films) who make the hillbilly duo in "Deliverance" look almost sane.
Bartel and all the other vicious cretins around, of which there are quite a few, seem to believe that Marc is Bartel's wife, returned at last. Some of them also seem to feel that they have conjugal rights with this returned "wife." (Perhaps the fact that there are no women around has them confused.) Much of what then happens is better left unspoken, but it represents one of the worst ordeals actor Lucas has suffered through yet.
Today's French horror movies can be quite effective, for example, the gut-wrenching original version of Alexandre Aja's "High Tension." But this shocker, heavily inspired by "Deliverance," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Shining," is arty and gripping without being especially gratifying. Du Welz has definite visual-dramatic talent. ("Calvaire" was a Cannes festival pick.) But, like Norman Bates' car, he need to get pulled out of the swamp.
(In French, with English subtitles.) Opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-281-4114, facets.org/cinematheque. No MPAA rating. Adult, for violence, sexuality, perversity and language.