There’s a lot of savage eatin’ and a distinct lack of lovin’ in “Prey,” Antoine Blossier’s Gallic boars-gone-wild spine-chiller. As demonstrated by the first “Jaws” and countless other films, potentially life-threatening animals are a lot scarier when kept mostly offscreen, but frosh scribe-helmer Blossier and co-scripter Erich Vogel really follow this rule only during their pic’s first half. Latter reels trade in tension for some nearly over-the-top silliness, though this thriller-horror hybrid with a quickie feel is certainly never boring. IFC acquired the film in Cannes this year and should see OK returns, especially in ancillary.
Despite a brief moment of gore, the early going feels very French as the initially talky pic focuses on the family issues of a countryside clan that owes its wealth to a massive fertilizer empire. Granddaughter Claire (Berenice Bejo), a chemist, is pregnant by her overly worrisome b.f., Nathan (Gregoire Colin), a doctor. But Claire’s demanding dad, Nicolas (Francois Levantal), wants her to continue her work at the family plant on a secret project, and Claire is considering an abortion, which doesn’t sit well with Nathan, who wants to move to the city and start a family.
When several deer are found dead on the family’s wooded property, and one of them contains a supersized boar tusk, the hunting instincts of the clan’s grandfather, Eric (Fred Ulysse), are awakened. The old man, who swears like a sailor, takes Nathan, Nicolas and Claire’s uncle David (Joseph Malerba) on an impromptu expedition in search of the boar, leaving the pregnant woman at home.
As the men enter the woods just before nightfall, Nicolas and David’s vocal sibling rivalry vexes their old man, while poor Nathan, the outsider, tries to reason with the father of his future wife. The men’s initial encounters with the furtive yet aggressive animals are well staged and almost entirely suggested through moving ferns and undergrowth, and, at times, suspiciously shifting dark splotches. Quick cuts and superb sound design ratchet up the tension; it’s in this middle section that Blossier shows where his true strengths as a filmmaker lie.
But “Prey” has too much on its mind to ever fully coalesce. There’s a hint of an ecological message that never fully develops, a lot of familial bickering and backstory to keep track of, and, as the film progresses, an attempt to transition from a lost-in-the-woods thriller to a full-on body-horror film. This genre shift, marked by the boars’ increasing visibility, is especially problematic. Though no doubt at least partially due to budget limitations, Blossier’s mise-en-scene is also at fault, as the novice helmer fails to realistically stage the direct confrontation with the ferocious and inconveniently oversized animals.
What remains are some clever screenplay twists, including the use of a cell phone (the explanation of the absence of phones is more often a gratingly unrealistic touch in genre films), and the committed performances of the actors, who all gamely suffer through one attack after another.
Romaric Laurence’s score has a greatest-horror-hits feel; rest of the tech package gets the job done.