Recollecting The Crimson Rivers, a Seemingly Forgotten French Horror/Thriller

For a while there, French horror was the big thing. We horror fans were getting genre flicks that were so gruesome and grotesque, it almost boggled the mind.

Films like Inside, Frontier(s), Trouble Every Day, and the like were shocking viewers with their visceral and almost gleeful demonstrations of gore and terror. Remember when High Tension was considered to be one of the goriest films ever seen? Or how about the shock factor – not just visually but also content-wise – of Martyrs? These are films that have stuck with us because they have damn good reason to.

But one film seems to have slipped through the cracks and is continuously left out of discussions. As the headline would obviously suggest, I’m talking about Les Rivières Pourpres, aka The Crimson Rivers.

Directed by Matthieu Kassovitz, whose next film was the poorly received Gothika, the film features the inspired cast of both Jean Reno (The Professional) and Vincent Cassel (Brotherhood of the Wolf). Both are detectives who team up with a local student/glaciologist to investigate a series of murders that seem to be centered around a prestigious university located in the small town of Guernon, high up in the French Alps. The victims each seem to have some relationship with the university, leading Reno and Cassel into a strange and dizzying conspiracy that involves Nazi-like eugenics. While that may seem absurd when read, the execution of the story is surprisingly well done; and it seems entirely and eerily plausible.

While The Crimson Rivers is nowhere near as blood-soaked as Martyrs or High Tension, it uses sporadic scenes of gore to great effect, really driving home the macabre nature of these murders. When we see the body of Remy Callois, there is a miasma about the scene that makes it extremely uncomfortable. The description of the horrors he endured, as explained by the forensic pathologist, is nothing short of chilling.

An interesting phenomenon in The Crimson Rivers is that it uses stunning cinematography that makes full use of the beautiful locale while simultaneously managing to evoke an interesting sense of claustrophobia amidst the vast openness of Guernon. There may be beautiful shots of mountain ranges that stretch as far as the eye can see, but that only serves to make the viewer feel as though the town is completely cut off, that everyone living there is on their own.

Now, I would be remiss if I were to not discuss the beautiful score by composer Bruno Coulais, whom you might have heard in Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film Coraline. Half of the reason that this movie feels so effective is because of the music, which feels as cold as the winter the story takes place during. The melodies weave sinuously through various instruments, leaving the listener on the edge of his seat wondering what will come next, much like the story of the film.

The Crimson Rivers is a film that I find myself coming back to with frequent regularity. It’s a fun story that has great music and fantastic performances from the main characters. It plays with the viewer and offers teases that we want but don’t necessarily need, preferring instead to use the power of suggestion so as to ignite the imagination. While a Neo-Nazi fight scene relatively early in the movie feels wildly out of place, the rest of the film has a consistent tone that builds to a thrilling ending.

As a bonus, if you enjoyed The Crimson Rivers, there’s a sequel called Crimson Rivers II: Angels of the Apocalypse that ain’t half bad, to put it mildly! Reno is still on board although Cassel is nowhere to be seen. That being said, we instead get horror legend Christopher Lee as the villain! How cool is that?!

All right, I hope this inspired you to check out or potentially revisit this gem. If you’ve seen it, let me know your thoughts on the film in the comments below. If you haven’t seen it, check it out and then weigh in with your opinion!

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Jonathan Barkan

Lifelong horror fan with a love of music on the side.

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