Horror movies depend almost entirely on buzz to find their way to success. They rarely have big stars or big budgets, so they pretty much rely on word of mouth and marketing to find an audience. It's why Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema emphasize the fact that The Conjuring had been rated R by the MPAA simply because it was "too scary." It's how The Blair Witch Project became a genuine phenomenon in 1999, with packed theaters and terrified audiences questioning the reality of the found footage tape. The strategy can even be applied to this year's adaptation of Stephen King's It, which broke the trailer views record with an exceptional piece of studio advertising that went viral in an instant. The horror genre is based around hype and buzz and the frantic reports of audience members who were so scared by what they just saw that they have no idea how to respond.
All of this can be said about Raw, the directorial debut of Julie Ducournau that has been making the rounds on the festival circuit over the past year. At last year's Toronto International Film Festival, Raw quickly became one of the most buzzed-about titles, thanks mostly to reports that an audience member had fainted due to the intensity at the Midnight Madness premiere of the film. Paramedics showed up, people created a scene, and the legend of Raw began to spread. Theaters began passing out barf bags, there were widespread reports of audiences running for the bathroom, and everyone started losing their mind over what seemed like one of the most audacious horror films in recent memory. So when audience members sit down to watch Raw, they'll probably have plenty of pre-conceived notions. I know I certainly did. But does Ducournau's debut deliver? I guess. It definitely has its fair share of shocking moments. It's never as outrageously disgusting as it wants to be, but as an exceptionally executed series of surprises, Raw pretty much works. A new horror classic? Not exactly. A wacky, gory funhouse ride? Absolutely.
Raw is the story of young Justine (Garance Marillier), a timid, brilliant veterinarian student who is heading off to a prestigious college. She's unusually sheltered by her parents, who are both devout vegetarians and overly protective people in general. When she arrives at the university, Justine is reunited with her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a wild child who has clearly accustomed to the party-driven spirit of the school. She's also assigned to room with Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), an attractive guy who is coming to terms with his sexuality as a gay man. Within hours, Justine begins to experience the school's intense hazing, which involves blood pouring, meat eating, and general awfulness at the hands of the Elders, upperclassmen students who have reinforced the hierarchical structure of the school.
But soon, weird things begin to happen to Justine. She develops a bizarre rash, one that leaves her in an intense state of pain. She finds herself experiencing new thoughts and feelings- most importantly, a strong desire for human flesh. Yes, that's right, the veggie-loving future veterinarian wants to be a cannibal now. There's some really sly humor on the part of Ducournau here, and I think the absurdity of the concept is a large part of the appeal. Anyways, she starts seeing strange things and eats raw chicken and stuff. People die, there's a lot of gore, and her sister oddly supports her and she doesn't quite know why. It's all outrageous and violent and gorehounds are going to fall in love with it. Everybody else probably won't know what to make of it.
I can't decide whether Raw is genuinely brilliant or whether it's merely a roller-coaster ride of gruesome shocks. The critical consensus is that it's some kind of horror masterpiece, but I'm not so sure. Ducournau has an exceptional sense of style and dramatic flair, and yet I just don't know if Raw amounts to anything truly substantial and memorable. The sexuality/cannibalism metaphor that everybody has been talking about is fairly on the nose, and I'm not sure if Raw is gross enough or clever enough to earn its reputation. But oh, what a ride. Ducournau is a master at executing scenes designed to make the audience go "oh my god," and there are several moments here that will be etched in my brain until the end of time. It's a perfect midnight feature, and while it never manages to transcend its genre origins, Ducournau still delivers something delightfully disgusting here. And the ending? It's an all-timer.
Ducournau also has the benefit of Garance Marillier as her lead, an actress willing to go places that most wouldn't even dare to think about. Raw is the kind of movie that could only come from Europe, due to their freewheeling approach to sexuality and nudity. Sex is as integral to the film as cannibalism is, and while I still feel that it's pretty obvious, there's a careful examination of sexual repression that works quite spectacularly. Raw is so gleefully over-the-top and so horrendously bloody that the theme almost plays as dark humor, and I almost think that this film works better as a kind of disturbing comedy. Marillier throws herself into the role, turning from a quiet, wide-eyed student into essentially a primal human being. She receives some great support from her fellow actors, but this movie is nothing without Marillier.
Raw will alienate most audiences because of its violence alone, but those looking for a shocking journey into sexual and culinary deviancy will be delighted. Ducournau is an incredibly provocative filmmaker with a great eye for what makes people tic, and while the narrative is less satisfying than the horror, Raw delivers exactly what you would expect from this kind of movie. It's nothing less than completely revolting, and the unpredictability of the story must be commended. Just when you think that there's no way Ducournau will possibly take it to that level, it goes there. It's jaw-dropping and exciting and while it'll probably evaporate from your mind rather quickly, Raw is a wonderful deep dive into flesh-loving madness.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.1/10)
Images courtesy of Focus Features