Quelle horreur! With few laughs and even fewer frights, French comedy-horror remake “The Red Inn” revives the blessedly obsolete (in this country at least) tradition of broad melodrama, as a batch of outlandish characters descend upon a remote mountain lodge run by homicidal yokels. Dispatching the clientele merely to pick their pockets seems especially unsophisticated after last year’s “Sweeney Todd,” but the cast relishes its shrill shtick regardless. Pic did reasonable business at home amid unfavorable reviews last December, but only Canadians will humor it this side of the Atlantic, with bawdy humor and subtitles canceling any hope of kid-friendly U.S. release.
Budgeted at more than €20 million ($31.7 million), this lavish French laffer serves as an excuse for key members of ’70s comedy troupe “Le Splendid” to reenact an old favorite, with Gerard Jugnot assuming the role of the bumbling monk made famous by Fernandel. Retread doesn’t venture far from the 1951 original, although it does correct that noxious caricature of a black servant who did the innkeepers’ bidding by substituting “Purple” (Fred Epaud), an obedient simpleton who communicates in snorts and sign language.
Traced back to its origins, “The Red Inn” puts a comic spin on an infamous early-19th-century French crime that took place at the Peyrebeille Inn, whose owners robbed and murdered dozens of unsuspecting travelers (director Tobe Hooper had similar character motivations in mind when he fashioned “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” from American incidents, which suggests critical differences in what each country finds amusing). Despite its title, “The Red Inn” isn’t particularly bloody, favoring such silly devices as bopping victims over the head with a giant wooden mallet or tossing them off bridges.
For years, Pierre and Rose Martin (played by Christian Clavier and Josiane Balasko) have kept their inn afloat by eliminating anyone who stops for the night, but they’re in over their heads when a party of nine drop by seeking shelter. While the coachman tends to the carriage’s broken axle, his passengers gather inside for rancid wine and cheese. Their number includes the aforementioned monk, his devout (yet easily seduced) verger, an overripe woodsman, a flamboyant lace maker, an elderly countess and the aristocratic couple who accompany her.
Heads immediately start to roll, so to speak, although Rose has misgivings about offing the priest and decides to confess her sins. The original’s most famous scene is faithfully reproduced here — right down to the chestnut grill through which she unburdens her conscience, taking credit for more than 100 murders. The monk is understandably horrified, promoted to the unlikely status of hero for the remainder of the film as he tries to save the others without violating the sanctity of Rose’s confession.
Director Gerard Krawczyk (who helmed all three “Taxi” sequels) permits his cast to play things as over the top as possible. Wild pantomime, groping and general buffoonery are all in-bounds, while Alexandre Azaria’s music exaggerates matters further with the loopy gothic feel of one of Danny Elfman’s Tim Burton scores. Though the entire production feels stagey, digital effects help situate the comedy against a scenic Pyrenean backdrop.