French Frights: Village of Shadows

In 2010, Fouad Benhammou made a French homage to J.A. Bayona’s the Orphanage or Amenabar’s The Others.

Basile Lebret
Jun 10 · 7 min read
Three armed women are walking in a dimly lit library.

At the beginning of it all, there’s a boy whose mom took him to the wrong screening. This story might have happened around the late 70s, early 80s. I don’t know what the movie was, but I don’t doubt the story. Just like I don’t find it dubious either that the mom stayed when she realized her mistake. I personally know someone who saw Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves at age 10 because of such a mistake. It might be because both parents thought their child was too young to grasp what happened on the silver screen.

Thirty years later, this child, Fouad Benhammou would dedicate his first full-length feature to his mom. But I might get ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.

We’re in the early 2000s, and the New Wave of French Extremism is hitting HARD! My mom, Inside, Martyrs. Success after success after success is becoming the habit for French horror movies. Kobayashi, a production company, dipped their toes twice — Abel ferry’s High Lane, David Morlet’s Mutants — in those waters without making it big. So, in 2004, they asked Lionel Olenga, a screenwriter, if he could write them something for a budget of around 300k€.

Lionel has this idea, it’s called Ruyflec — an anagram for Lucyfer — and it’s about a group of young people getting lost in some cursed village in the countryside. As is often the case, the script has to be rewritten, for one because our hero only enters the aforementioned village at the 45th page — so around 45 minutes in — and there are problem with rhythm and character development. One of the changes the producers asked for is the introduction of an opening sequence featuring dying Nazis; those changes happened in 2006.

On the side, Olenga is working with a certain Fouad Benhammou on a project called Asphyxie. Also a genre film that they are being unsuccessful to pitch to any production company. It explains why, when the first filmmaker envisioned to direct Village of Shadows had to leave his seat, Olenga instantly asked Kobayashi to maybe try and talk to Benhammou.

It’s a good decision, for as soon as Benhammou, specialized in tv series and advertisement, settled on the project, in 2007, he asked to shoot the opening sequence. This little stunt will cost 8k, for two days of shoot in Normandy with two German actors but Benhammou has a plan. He has developed one of the first French web series and he gets how strong the web is in order to get the movie talked about. A teaser will help sell the movie, but it’ll also get the horror fans talking.

The team moves to Cannes with their teaser and their script, giving it to whoever. What we do know is at some point Gaumont was interested in the movie, the distributor gave notes so that the number of the curse would be eight instead of six. This led to the creation of the actual heroines — the two sisters — of the movie. Gaumont also asked Abel Ferry to rename High Lane (Vertiges in French) because its first title was Ferrata and this title seemed arcane. This change led Benhammou to first subtitle Ruyflex/Village of Shadows. It would then turn to Ruiflex/Village of Shadows and finally Village of Shadows as we know it. According to Benhammou, said teaser was also decisive on why Canal+ finally invested in the movie.

Soon, the company asked a script doctor Pascal Jaubet to be a script doctor. Things go so well that Jaubert soon becomes a co-writer. He would also get a role, albeit tiny, in the first twenty minutes of the flick.

All in all the production gets a budget of 1,6 millions euros. According to Benhammou, when the production really started, the budget was now down to 1,340 millions. Nonetheless, Benhammou had to cut at least thirty pages of the script in order to adapt to the budget he had.

Four people surround a crashed car. All the doors are opened. It’s raining.

For the cast, the production wanted Christa Théret, who they saw in L.O.L — a huge success in France — Benhammou doubted them, hired another actress and when this unknown person fled he finally had to call Théret. Cyrille Thouvenin was found on MySpace by Benhammou, Ornella Boulé he met at a party according to the actress. Barbara Goenaga got cast because Benhammou wanted to have an homage to the Spanish fantastic scene, and because while he was searching for an actress, he saw her on a tv show. There’s a logic behind Benhammou’s casting, though, because the director wanted comedians from theatre so that they would know their lines beforehand. Hence why he hired Johnathan Coen, a funny guy Benhammou says in the making-of. in France, Coen would go on to become really famous as a comedian. Like really, REALLY famous.

Much of the small parts Benhammou gave to people he had already worked with, whether on his web series or his first short films. In a gentle gesture, the filmmaker hired back the two German actors he used during his teaser.

Another fun fact about the team is that Laura Ozier, his key makeup artist, had previously worked on every genre productions by Kobayashi but she would go on to work on Julia Ducournau’s Raw.

Production lasted 36 days, in the region of the Bouche du Rhônes, in at least three different villages and ended on January 5th of 2009. Some scenes, like the car interior, and the jail scene had to be shot in studios. But let’s not forget this is Benhammou’s first movie. Hence why he shot the flashbacks — in which most of his actors friends would take part — this for two reasons, first to reassure himself but also to show his newly hired actors how he would direct. He had also taken a few days prior to shoot some scenes on TV in a mansion in the countryside with his team of actors. Benhammou also went on record stating he sometimes went to see his actor and had them act their first meeting, just so that they would be in clear possession of their characters.

Benhammou nonetheless admits he would talk during takes — a big no no on French set where direct sound is always preferred to off one — this put him in jeopardy for he intended to edit the movie himself and had to cut out his own voice out of the takes he parasites. Another weird thing Benhammou would do was put on temporary tracks DURING the shoot, according to him, for the actors to know what kind of mood he wanted to set during the scene. He would do this because he once read Scorsese did it, maybe what he forgot was that Scorsese does his sound in post, and I know this because I once talked to one of his perchman.

This may be in part because, even though Benhammou became a filmmaker, his family is deeply involved in music. At the beginning, during the car scene, the first song you hear was made by his dad, the funk track that’s put on by one of the characters? the title he allegedly produced? It was, in truth, a track made by the filmmaker’s brother. This love for music led Benhammou to hire a composer soon. The director had his composer during the first teaser, this enabled him to ask for changes, get temporary tracks and be overall very precise about the score. Despite its little budget, the composer would afford a team of 28 musicians in order to make the score. A rare feat in little French films.

On June the 22th, Benhammou would begin editing his movie. Alone. This first director’s cut would be two hours and fifteen minutes long, leading to a rare event. A private test audience, which was intended by none other than Julien Seri — Yamakasi, Scorpion, Nightfare — after which Benhammou reduced once again his film to the more rational length of 1h40.

At the beginning of the journey, Benhammou and Kobayashi had taken the vow not to make a regular horror movie. What the beginning director wanted to make was a gothic fairy tale. You see, at this point, French extremism was all the norm, so French horror flicks had to be gore. Problem is, Benhammou wanted a large audience, people who do not go to the theatre to see a French genre movie, and he had to befriend French genre aficionados who wanted some of those gory flicks they had become accustomed to.

Despite the news surrounding it, and the distribution scheme — for it was screened in over 150 theatres that’s a lot for a French fantastic film — even more so if you look at, say, Eden Log. I do not know if the movie made its money back. I doubt it, still researching for this paper I found something interesting.

On a tiny article, on a little website, someone wrote that Village of the Shadows was a failure. A certain Fouad of the Shadow in the comment section answers: A big failed try for Village of Shadows? Well… On your own website, the movie has a grade of 7/10, so it must not have failed that much, finally— Aim at being coherent from time to time— Thanks, to whom might listen.

Trailer

Next week, we’ll talk about the unseen The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean!

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