The search for extended youth fuels this gnarly throwback to the more extreme horror efforts of the early part of the millennium. Jens Dahl, the writer of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s breakthrough Pusher in the mid-’90s directs a science fiction shocker exploring a modern strain of genetic experimentation. Breeder is high on cruelty, but way too overstuffed thematically.

Mia (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) has an affluent life with husband Thomas (Anders Heinrichsen), but remains unfulfilled sexually. She likes the odd bit of BDSM, yet he can barely bring himself to touch her. His squeamishness is linked to his investment in a shady, secretive genetic programme run by their severe neighbour Dr Ruben (Signe Egholm Olsen). Mia discovers the Ruben has been abducting single, pregnant women, and harvesting their foetuses in order to provide an untried anti-aging serum to their rich, white, male clients. Mia finds herself imprisoned at the hands of Ruben and her sadistic henchmen The Pig (Jens Andersen) and The Dog (Morten Holst).

The story, by Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen, has hints of fables like Bluebeard, legends like that of Elizabeth Bathory, and classic ‘mad scientist’ texts like Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It also nods strongly at early Cronenberg classic Shivers with its unwelcoming modern architecture and a knowingly kitsch sales pitch cum information video for its miracle product. In its execution, Breeder falls somewhere between the brutality and nihilism of the New French Extremity movement (Martyrs, Inside, High Tension), and the melancholy stylings of Scandi-noir. One suspects that there will be a little too much of each to appeal to fans of the other. It’s too chilly to haul the viewers into an absolute dark night of the soul like Martyrs, but too gratuitous and nasty for devotees of The Killing or The Bridge.

The other issue central issue is that Breeder embraces wholly the tropes of exploitation while purporting to be a feminist movie. This tension can add a thorny ambiguity, and it’s an internal conflict with which most horror fans will be familiar. With Breeder, there is a subtext on animal husbandry and its attendant cruelty that sends the film spiralling into the realms of the ridiculous. It’s clear that Dahl and Thomsen wish to contrast the pristine, clinical space of the ‘legitimate’ surgery with the rank, cramped, and unsanitary conditions in which the women are held captive. But there is no sense in keeping pregnant women in awful conditions if you require healthy babies, no matter how malign your intentions. Also, the women are branded, unnecessarily. Even more bafflingly, the dirty, bloody smocks of past victims have also been framed and hung up in the facility’s kitchen. So rapt are filmmakers by this metaphor of livestock that it hammers against the more overtly relevant themes of rich and poor, and rampant, unfettered capitalism.

There is no denying that several scenes in Breeder are effective, in the insalubrious ‘torture porn’ tradition. Much of the violence is sexualised and highly sadistic as you would expect, yet this once again feels at odds with the aims of its antagonists. It does feel undeniably cathartic once the tables are turned and the aggressors get a taste of their own foul medicine, and in terms of surface genre thrills it often delivers. Yet while it isn’t as extreme as the likes of Martyrs or Inside it lacks a streamlined sense of purpose, feeling like its story has been spliced together to match its thematic concerns rather than those arising organically from the narrative. As such, while it’s suitably nasty it is never truly disturbing or upsetting like the films it sets out to emulate.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 15 Feb 2021