Actors who play big and steal scenes with regularity are often tagged as 'forces of nature.' Though evocative, this well-worn term seems inadequate to describe what Vincent Cassel pulls off in the French horror film Sheitan, new on DVD from Tartan Films. Outfitted with massive yellow dental appliances, his Gallic good looks hidden beneath a goony farmer's mustache and a singularly unruly mop of hair, Cassel can only be described as a walking cataclysm. His performance doesn't so much chew the scenery as devastate it, laying waste to everything and everyone within reach and leaving behind smoking piles of wood and shattered windows aplenty. It's a fascinating, hilarious and wholly ego-free performance from a major world actor, and it goes a long way towards propping up what is otherwise a wobbly slow burn of a supernatural shocker.
Cassel doesn't enter into Sheitan until the start of the second act, by which point director Kim Chapiron has generated a low-grade anticipatory air via careful application of visual style and a fine sense for the manic and the lurid. It's a pretty typical spam-in-a-cabin setup, with five friends — steely-eyed player Ladj (Ladj Ly), sweet-natured bartendress Yasmine (Leïla Bekhti), smooth-operating horndog Thai (Nicholas Le Phat Tan) smoldering temptress Eve (Roxanne Mesquida) and awkward, socially desperate would-be thug Bart (Olivier Bartélémy) — going up to the isolated farmhouse where one of them (Eve) lives. Chapiron takes the time to set each of these oafs up as semi-sympathetic, their delinquency (a bar fight, a gas-n-go) depicted as mere youthful foolishness; yet, he doesn't actually sympathize with them (the opening title card reads, "Lord, don't forgive them, for they know what they do"). Splitting the balance between clever and obnoxious — there's a wonderful near-throwaway bit involving a scarf — Chapiron manages the difficult balance of making us want to see these characters die horribly… but maybe not just yet.
Then, Cassel's grinning visage turns up in the guise of oddball caretaker Joseph, and from there on the other characters might as well not have names. The introduction of Joseph amplifies both the film's energy and its weirdness; whether he's squirting goat milk straight from an udder into Eve's mouth or trying, in his twitchy grunting way, to hook up Bart with his hysterically oversexed niece Jeanne (Julie-Marie Parmentier), Cassel's live-wire antics are something to savor. As Sheitan stretches closer to its climax, gathering suggestions of Satanism and swinging group sex along the way, the whole endeavor takes on the shameless energy of a good, sick barroom joke. It's not unlike the anecdote Bart relates about a prospective hookup's poor genital hygiene.
It is unfortunate, then, that Chapiron's script (co-written with his father Christian) also has the ramshackle construction of such a joke. While there's a killer punchline regarding Joseph's mysterious, hugely pregnant wife Mary, it's precisely that point at which the narrative structure begins to collapse — it's such a show-stopping topper that it negates any other surprises Chapiron might have holstered. The third act is both superfluous and not informative enough.
For example, it's obvious that Joseph is in league with the Devil (and Eve's name wasn't just chosen for its palindromic perfection, either), so there's a certain level on which all there is to do is wait for the inevitable (which, when it arrives, is lifted from Jeepers Creepers). But in attempting to jazz things up, Chapiron muddies the clarity of the through-line. The dream sequence is well-played, but what is the impulse to dredge up forgotten characters (i.e. Jeanne) solely for the purpose of forgetting them again? And, indeed, what are we to make of the slapdash Christian iconography and the explicit earmarking of two characters as Muslim? (I think it depends on whether the Joseph-and-Mary symbolism is a perverse joke or a willful misunderstanding.) Kim's got a lot of ideas, which is good, but he's attempted to jam them all into a ninety-minute horror film, which isn't so good. Not even a bellowing, red-eyed Cassel crashing headlong through a window as though it were paper can keep the wrap-up from feeling like a surfeit of wasted opportunity.
Still, Sheitan has a lot going for it. It's got moxie, a kinetically trashy spirit and a brazen willingness to offend. It's got a flashy visual style from Chapiron. And most importantly, it's got madman Vincent Cassel going as full-bore nutzoid as a well-respected actor ever has. I'm not sure Sheitan is a good film, but I wouldn't dissuade you from giving it a look. I might give it another look myself.