The Mansion is a French comedy-horror about a gaggle of students who spend the night partying at a big old secluded house. Count the killings and guess who will be left at the end.
Le Manoir made its mark at genre film festivals last year; Netflix has now picked it up for global distribution, put the translated title The Mansion in the publicity, and waited for teenage Tucker and Dale fans to lap it up.
On that subject of publicity, maybe you’re one of those lucky genre lovers who remembers first seeing Cabin in the Woods at the cinema. “You think you know the story,” was that tagline that drew people in. Cabin in the Woods took some cliched characters and other horror tropes, poked fun at extreme violence in cinema, and overturned expectations. The Mansion took some cliched characters and other horror tropes, poked fun at student cultures and cliques (much as they might make fun of each other), had a bit of a laugh with some violence, and overturned nothing.
The Mansion‘s scenario is this: ten French students in their last year take a minibus to a chateau just over the border in Belgium, booked just for themselves, for an all-night New Eve party. The place is a bit old-fashioned and creepy, but that suits most of the thrill-seeking gang. Gradually, nasty things happen; fairly low-key and outside the house at first, so not many people are terribly aware. But it doesn’t take long before everyone has to take an unknown threat seriously, due to some weirdo in a mask (don’t you know?) and a few deaths.
Those students. Perhaps I was a little blunt calling the characters cliched, but they are certainly standard types: plump ginger virgin, organised head-girl type, bimbo, disco king, drug fiend, shy outsider, etc. In terms of the writing and portrayal, the characters were all entertaining, but not especially memorable, except perhaps for those last two, played by Vincent Tirel and Lila Lacombe. I might keep an eye out for those two names in future, but overall the cast was so two-dimensional to be almost cartoon-like.
The Mansion/Le Manoir was the first feature film directed by Tony T. Datis, whose previous directing experience was largely music videos. That’s no surprise, looking back: The Mansion is full of moments of flourish, as well as the neat blending of (mild) tension, colour, and excitable, well-groomed young adults. Oh and the bouncy soundtrack, which – although, again, a little stereotypical – was not overdone. As director, he did a perfectly good job, though the background shows.
The production was as polished as the cast, by which I mean we have a glorious old mansion which has been well looked after but made to look creepy, without having any cobwebs or an actual creepy atmosphere at all. But there are fabulous secret corridors, mounted animal heads and a forbidden wood… all the horror tropes you might want, at least if you are as nostalgic for the nineties as the party-goers are for the noughties.
Yep, actually more tropes than jokes: not what any of us want from a so-called horror-comedy. You might expect The Mansion to be a parody, but none of the humour is quite affectionate enough about the sources of the tropes. You might expect it to be a spoof, but none of it is quite slapstick or over-the-top enough. Or indeed funny enough! Most of the humour it produced was about people being hurt/scared/killed while wearing fancy dress, or some daft reactions to almost-extreme violence.
What I want from a horror-comedy is wit. I got this from Cabin in the Woods, Rubber and even Deathgasm, but I got none from The Mansion.
As for the horror element, well, we’ve learned to expect a lot from French filmmakers over the years, from Eyes Without a Face, through Switchable Romance, Martyrs and – more recently – Revenge. Excuse me if I am veering into stereotype, but I have the impression they take horror seriously. Personally, I find good horror exciting, and I love the tension that comes from not knowing what’s going to happen. I especially love tension which is married with intelligence (which is why comedy wit works for me). Very little of that was demonstrated in The Mansion: it was entertaining, rather than exciting; and the only tension came from waiting to see just how badly mutilated any given person would turn out to be.
But see, there is a plus point: The Mansion was entertaining. Despite characters, setting and a premise that made me wonder why they bothered, the details of the plot were not completely predictable (though I must say the grand reveal was probably only surprising to people who haven’t seen the same films as I have).
I’ve given The Mansion the score I have because it was well made, entertaining and nicely paced. There were no downright poor actors, and I didn’t come close to switching it off. But it didn’t make me gasp or laugh. Perhaps the best thing to do is show it to daring teenagers (there are some gory bits), with the promise of better fare when they’re ready. If they’re ready straight away, show them You’re Next.