Director: Alexandre Aja
From cerebral thrillers to ghosts to zombies to monsters, the horror genre can cover a lot of ground. But perhaps the most controversial of all the sub-genres, however, is the slasher film. Closely related to the Italian "giallo" style of literature and filmmaking, slasher movies have often been reviled by critics as trite, formulaic claptrap serving no real purpose other than to show attractive actors getting killed. But horror fans paid critics no mind, rushing into theaters to see the dozens of slasher movies that were released in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th. As the 1980s progressed, slasher movies became fewer and far-between, sputtering and wheezing to a slow death. However, things changed in 1996, when renowned horror maestro Wes Craven and Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson teamed up for Scream. The movie was a big fat hit, revitalizing the slasher genre with its all-star cast and self-referential nature. However, as good as Scream is, it started a new trend of slasher movies that were intended less for people who grew up watching them, and more for the Dawson's Creek demographic.
The amount of blood and gore was reduced and the violence was severely toned down, becoming much more implied (if not totally off-screen). Whether the toned-down violence and gore was due to an attempt to appeal to the "teeny bopper" demographic or due to MPAA restrictions is anybody's guess, but the watering-down of the genre even saw the release of PG-13 slasher movies (movies like Cry Wolf and Stay Alive, for you trivia buffs). I don't have a problem with PG-13 horror movies or movies where the violence is more implied, but you'd figure that a slasher movie by nature would feature lots of blood and violence. A lot of diehard slasher movie fans pined for a return to the "good ol' days," which is what they were hoping for in Alexandra Aja's High Tension. Released in its native France as Haute Tension ("High Voltage") and in the United Kingdom as Switchblade Romance, the movie spent two years frightening Europe before Lions Gate Films brought it across the Atlantic Ocean for an extremely short-lived limited release in the summer of 2005. Was High Tension the return to the old-school style that fans were hoping for, or should it have stayed in France?
The plot can be described relatively simply, so let's get to it, shall we? College students Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) head into the French countryside so they can spend a peaceful weekend studying at the secluded farmhouse owned by Alex's family. Unfortunately for them, the serenity doesn't last long, as a psychopathic stranger (Philippe Nahon) breaks into the house and brutally slaughters Alex's family. While Marie manages to elude the burly lunatic, Alex finds herself tied up and thrown into the back of the murderer's truck, which, judging from its interior, looks to have claimed numerous victims in the past (while appearing as if it were stolen from the Jeepers Creepers prop department, to boot). Before the night is out, Marie must find a way to rescue Alex and avoid becoming a victim herself, following a bloody path left by a madman with a thirst for carnage.
High Tension is one of those movies where, even if you have absolutely no idea what's going on at any given time, you're still blown away. It takes two or three viewings for everything to sink in, but each time, my appreciation for the movie grows. Though its seemingly out-of-nowhere twist ending may not please everyone, High Tension is a well-crafted piece of horror art. And while the movie may be filled with gore and violence, it would still be terrifying without it. True horror doesn't come from showing graphic imagery, it comes from the anticipation, from the atmosphere. High Tension understands this, and though it's unabashedly soaked in blood, it also uses an "oh man, what's the killer going to do next?" mentality that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat. And while it may be a foreign movie, High Tension is true to the genre's American roots. We see homages to horror movies from days gone by, from classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Shining, to lesser-known gems like Maniac. There's even references to non-horror movies, as evidenced a subtle nod to True Romance towards the end of the movie.
The script, penned by Grégory Levasseur and director Alexandre Aja, doesn't rely very heavily on dialogue. Between the first twenty minutes and the last five, there's only one scene with any extensive dialogue. But you know what? It isn't really needed. The movie isn't about what the characters have to say, it's about what happens to them as their whole world falls to pieces around them. In the early moments of the movie, we see a badly scarred Marie telling her story from a hospital room. With this knowledge, we realize that she survives, but where the suspense lies is seeing how she goes from Point A to Point B. We don't expect the characters to sit down and have nice lengthy conversations, we expect them to face dangerous situations. The script isn't a typical film of this ilk, in that we see touches of humanity within. Take, for example, Alex's mother (played by Oana Pellea). After being horrifically brutalized by the killer, she doesn't ask for help, but merely whispers "why me?" with her dying breath. This proves to be both poignant and disturbing, and is a very effective moment indeed.
High Tension is brilliantly directed by Aja, assisted by tight editing and the gorgeous cinematography of Mahime Alexandre. The movie looks absolutely wonderful, from the luscious greens of a forest, to the dark blues of night, to the drab yellows of the farmhouse. A lot of horror directors forget about how scary suspense can be, but Aja doesn't. We only see quickly-paced editing in a few spots, as Aja instead chooses to linger on certain shots. Aja takes his time, making his film dig itself under the viewer's skin. Aiding this is the very visceral sound design. High Tension benefits from its stellar use of ambient noise to add to the movie's anxiousness, sometimes even dropping into total silence with the exceptions of the killer's shoes squeaking on a hardwood floor. When the sound design isn't enough, François Eudes's intense musical score is brought in. In an American movie, the music would manipulate you with cheap jump scares (usually through loud stingers, which I call my "going deaf is scary" theory). The music could overwhelm the movie like in American horror movies, but High Tension's music underlies everything. When the score and sound design are combined, High Tension is as terrifying audibly as it is visually.
In a movie such as this, casting can make or break a movie. If you can't feel some kind of connection to the lead hero or heroine, then it will be harder to draw you in. I thought Cécile De France did a wonderful job as Marie, showing us a tough heroine in the same vein as Linda Hamilton in The Terminator or Sigourney Weaver in Alien. The physicality of her role demands a lot from her, and she's up to task, running the gamut of emotions of anyone who would be in her situation. Phillipe Nahon, credited simply as "le tueur" ("the killer"), is given nearly no character development at all. We don't get inside his head, we don't see what makes him tick. He's just a malevolent force of nature driven only by his insatiable bloodlust, reinforced by Nahon's disturbing performance. I'll admit I'm not familiar with Nahon's work, but if he's anything like "le tueur" in any of his other movies, I'll have to check them out. Maïwenn Le Besco doesn't get a lot of screen time (nor does any other member of the limited cast, outside of De France and Nahon), but as far as acting really scared goes, Le Besco nails it.
Perhaps most noteworthy is the outstanding special makeup effects supervised by Gianetto De Rossi. A frequent collaborator with the late horror legend Lucio Fulci, De Rossi's effects look realistic and believable, and I give it a thumbs up. And big props to De Rossi's makeup department for making Nahon look like a nasty monster that would rape you, kill you, then rape you again. Nahon is a handsome guy in real life, but with a combination of makeup, wardrobe, and performance, he comes off as someone who'd make you cross the street just so you wouldn't have to pass him on the sidewalk. According to those behind the scenes, Nahon in full makeup bears a resemblance to notorious French serial murderer Émile Louis, and if that's the case, then perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that Nahon is famous for playing loonies and nutjobs in various French movies.
A review of High Tension isn't complete without mentioning its infamous twist. The subject of heated debate across the Internet, many complain that its ending came out of nowhere, believing that it made The Village's much-maligned twist ending look good. Others, on the other hand, didn't mind so much. I really didn't know what to think of the twist at first, but it's grown on me. The movie is a kindred spirit to The Sixth Sense, so to speak. There are a few clues hinting at the twist, but many of them are so subtle that you don't even recognize them until you see the movie a second or even third time. And it didn't help that people got so worked up denouncing the twist that they didn't even stop and think that it may have worked better had Aja simply revealed it differently. Going back to online complaints, some claim that High Tension is heavily inspired by Dean Koontz's novel Intensity (while others claim it's a case of outright plagiarism). I have yet to read the book at the time of this review, so screw Dean Koontz. Rip-off or not, I still liked the movie.
High Tension may be indicative of the stark differences between American horror and non-American horror. Foreign horror is so far removed from its American counterpart, usually shying away from jokes, pop culture references, or even compassion. Foreign horror is dark, moody, and delves deep into the shadows of the human heart, something most Americans don't usually appreciate or yearn to see. There aren't any postmodern wisecracks or anything like that, but unbridled insanity. Aja says on the DVD audio commentary that he wanted the movie to be as tense and suspenseful as possible, and I think he succeeded. The movie, in my opinion, is a nightmare caught on celluloid. I might be overrating it some, but I'd be willing to bet that High Tension is one of the best slasher films since Scream. And for that, I'll give it four stars.
Final Rating: ****