Movie Review
High Tension
Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Cécile De France, Maïwenn Le Besco, Philippe Nahon

what the hell has happened to horror? Seems these days you can’t have a scary movie without it turning into… well, Scary Movie. The whole genre had to get all funny and self-referential on us. Used to be that the object of the horror game was to get you so freaked out you couldn’t sleep for a week. Or swim in the ocean. Horror used to be a grim and psychotic mistress, inspiring visceral disgust and lasting unease. Now she’s just a giddy trollop cutting a wide gash for the clown-red blood to flow out and the money to flow in. Bah!

Slashers, especially, just haven’t been the same since Freddy Krueger started cracking wise. True splatter geeks seem to return to the old masters time and time again for their kicks. Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Tobe Hooper, et al. are experiencing a sort of Renaissance as gore hounds lament the death of all the creative, original and utterly disgusting ways a filmmaker can murder someone without softening the blows with humor. And heaven forbid a horror film has the audacity to take itself seriously; sometimes that only makes it worse. A few are so cerebral and stylized and steeped in angst that you won’t have to worry about not sleeping for a week, because you’ll be sleeping right there in the theater! Then on the other end of the spectrum are the Captain Quick Cuts out there with their fists pounding the “hyper-kinetic” button so hard on their Avid editing stations that the ensuing headache will turn you into the psycho killer. And finally there’s the much-maligned Church of the Twist Ending, which, although not new in the realm of horror, suddenly seems tediously prevalent.

All of these trappings are designed to distance the viewer from the feeling of threat that, really, horror is supposed to immerse them in. Or perhaps they merely distance the director from the subject matter, as we are living in the age of “issues”, after all. I mean, can we have a real old-school slice and dice anymore without everyone speculating on the filmmakers’ psychological well-being? Hell, even I declared John Carpenter a flaming misogynist after seeing John Carpenter’s Vampires, but that’s only because he so obviously is. (Plus that movie sucked so mightily I should be allowed to name-call.) Seriously, dude, how many times can you punch a woman in the face, even if she is a vampire, before it starts getting weird for everybody? I’m just saying. In any case, you’re not likely to see much unapologetic ugliness without something to, for lack of a better word, “justify” it in the end. Still, Alexandre Aja has made a noble effort in an attempt to meld the depraved desperation of the unsmiling 70’s/80’s Euro-slasher with the surprise ending that seems de rigeur these days. Trouble is, this surprise ending seems to be pissing everyone off mightily.

"I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK..."

High Tension begins familiarly enough. Hot college babes Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) pack up and head to Alex’s family home in the country in search of a peaceful place to relax and study. No such luck. The very same night they arrive, a deranged killer (Philippe Nahon) forces his way in, brutally slaying the parents and nine year old brother and kidnaping Alex. Barely evading capture, Marie can only watch helplessly this wholesale slaughter from various hiding places throughout the house before stowing away in the killer’s freaky, rusted delivery truck in the hopes of eventually rescuing Alex. The next hour is a sometimes uneven but definitely, at least at times, tension laden joyride of terror and dread as Marie tails the apparently motiveless maniac on his blood-spattered journey to parts unknown. And when this ride finally comes to an end, both the characters and the audience find themselves in a place they couldn’t possibly expect to be.

Look, I’m not saying that High Tension doesn’t make a lot of fatal missteps, because oh, it sure does, but that doesn’t make it a throwaway film. The cinematography is outstanding with lots of long, bleak stretches of landscape highlighting a feeling of being hopelessly lost, as if you could be swallowed up by the vast expanses of earth and sky and no one would ever know. The overall look of the film, in fact, reminded me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark melded with Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and colored in by Dario Argento. Blood red sunsets and blue filtered tangles of woodland hells. Gorgeous. There’s also a gritty graininess that’s reminiscent of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and lends an authentic 70’s feel to the atmosphere. Great makeup effects, too, underscore a certain artistry usually lacking in the slasher genre. The violence, though very heavily edited for an R rating and what they apparently consider the sissy American audience, is still pretty intense and uncomfortably realistic. It’s hard to imagine what we didn’t see.

The acting, too, is outstanding. Philippe Nahon makes the perfect villain, utterly normal looking underneath a thick layer of grime, but skin-crawlingly methodical and relentlessly psychotic. His every move is surgical precision and remorselessly violent. No hockey masks here, just a wordless, primal killing machine, the stuff of real nightmares. And you couldn’t ask for a fiercer horror movie heroine than Cécile De France, either. Holy hell is she ever bad-ass. She’s like Maria Falconetti with Mia Farrow’s Rosemary’s Baby haircut. That is, if she could have leaped from the final frames of The Passion of Joan of Arc, wrapped her stake in barbed wire and started swinging it around. She’s the fit-framed juggernaut that is this movie’s piston-driven heart when it would otherwise asphyxiate on its own suspense. Which brings me to High Tension’s bad points.

Not promising...

There’s building tension, and then there’s building tension so high that your audience falls right off the peak before you get the chance to give them a frighteningly good shove. I could have used a few more scares because there were several moments that came off a bit slow in my estimation. And have you heard about the dubbing? Dear god, the dubbing! What the hell were they thinking there? The dubbing is Godzilla bad and seemingly attacks at random, with a Penelope Cruz sound-alike, no less. There’s little enough dialogue in the film as it is, but the dubbing will make you wish there were none. Even stranger was the decision to revert to subtitles whenever one of the characters cursed, which was so odd it was distracting. Though, not nearly as odd as the ending.

I think the only thing about High Tension that has met with more bile and confusion than the dubbing is the twist ending. People are just totally freaking out about it. Personally, I didn’t even know there would be a twist ending, but there it was, right there in the third act, and one of the most jarring WTF? Moments I’ve ever been party to. My first reaction was “Well, I certainly didn’t see that one coming!” and as I gave it more thought, I realized there was no way I could have. You see it just doesn’t match up. Try as you might, you just can’t make it fit as tightly as Marie’s tee shirt, which is to say as tightly as it should fit. But do you think it’s the gigantic plot-hole that’s got everyone so riled up? No, it’s the very nature of the twist itself that has led to ugly accusations I can’t even mention without giving it away. However, I will say this; I do not think it means what the mortally offended think it means. The ending is a bunch of bullshit, no doubt, but it’s ultimately meaningless bullshit, so don’t read too deeply into it.

The bottom line is that High Tension swings and misses, but then, what do you expect, really, from a genre that’s famous for being as sloppy as the butchers it dreams up? It’s still better than most in terms of looks, effects, acting and direction even if it trips over it’s bad pacing and impales itself on its own poorly chosen ending. Many recommend buying the unrated DVD from a Japanese distributor in lieu of seeing the movie in US theaters, but I can only agree with that if you are a collector of this sort of thing. Otherwise, I’m sure there will be an unrated version available for rental, and that’s the option I’m more likely to be in favor of. So, strictly a rental, and even then, slasher fans only.

By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2005-06-17
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