Not Haute Enough
Aside from the gruesomely gory Saw and Shaun of the Dead released last fall, horror movies these days are shying away from incorporating too much of the red stuff, often for the sake of getting a PG-13 rating and, in turn, a wider audience. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to High Tension (or, depending on where you live, Haute Tension or Switchblade Romance), a French-borne ode to the slasher genre that was supposed to deliver gorehounds from the bloodless, PG-13 wastelands populating the box office nowadays. In retrospect, I should've paid closer attention to the signs, especially Lions Gate welshing on their promise of an NC-17 rating by trimming enough content to get an R.
Rather than being the horror messiah I had hoped it would be, High Tension is more like an Antichrist for the genre, proving it doesn't take much for a promising picture to fall victim to the same trappings responsible for sucking the potential out of so many similar films that came before.
Our story is a simple one. College friends Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maiwenn) are heading to the latter's family's place in the country for a weekend of studying for exams. But they're somewhat interrupted by a dirty, rotund individual (Philippe Nahon) who proceeds to systematically slaughter Alex's entire family, tying up Alex and saving her for himself. Marie witnesses the carnage firsthand and, determined to prevent her friend from becoming the killer's next victim, goes to great lengths to do so and put an end to the brutal killings.
'Tis a thin premise, yes, but not one without plenty of potential and possibilities waiting to be explored. In the right hands, an idea like this would have the opportunity to be crafted into a jarring and intense horror experience, one where all that's needed to generate conflict and suspense is to pit a merciless killer against someone who's bent on staying alive. For a few times scattered throughout High Tension, director/co-writer Alexandre Aja does exactly that, creating very suspenseful scenes out of uncompliacted situations. The bit where Marie escapes the killer's eye by curling her legs up under the mattress was a little goofy, but I enjoyed the execution (pardon the pun) of the gas station scene, in which Marie first has to find a way out of the killer's rusty truck before running inside the building and having to elude the killer in hopes of getting some help out of the frightened clerk.
High Tension works best when it's on a pure, "good vs. evil" level, simply showing the terror the antagonist inflicts (including a decapitation via cabinet and a buzz saw shoved through a car window) and seeing how the heroine handles it in her personal quest for survival. This approach doesn't work all the time, as some scenes just seem to bleed into one another without much transition, but the eerie atmosphere really stays with you for most of the time. Maiwenn doesn't have much to do but sit tied up in a truck and scream a lot, but De France manages herself well as a slasher heroine (creating the movie's most memorable image, that of her holding a fencepost wrapped in barbed wire), and Nahon is simple as the grunting, soft-spoken killer with no motivation except that he just wants to kill you for no particular reason. Yeah, High Tension had a lot going for itself...
Then Aja decides to make things complicated, and this is when his pet project causes a drop in his film's high tension and the audience's high expectations.
High Tension demonstrates a theory many viewers have formed after watching recent horror movies: whether it'll make sense or not, no horror flick can be concluded without a twist ending. The trouble with High Tension is that while movies like Saw lulled the audience with a suspenseful plot and fairly-placed clues before dropping a big bombshell close to the final credits, Aja just whips out his twist with no build-up, no announcement, and no tact. The effect is similar to that of a concert pianist playing a lovely piece, only five minutes before he's finished he jumps out into the audience and punches you square in the face. It's not just that High Tension resorts to using such a hackneyed and worn-out twist to give the audience one last jolt or two, it's also that Aja and crew almost seem to hide behind it, not bothering to use their time to go back and tie everything together properly.
As for the decision to dub part of the movie in English (and very badly, I might add -- Godzilla had it better than these folks), someone no doubt thought the target audience wasn't interested in a foreign-language film, but the slipshod dubbing used as a replacement is more likely to inspire hilarity than horror where viewers are concerned.
I'm pleased that horror is getting more exposure these days. It's a genre often looked down upon and unappreciated for the truly effective treasures it delivers to the world of cinema. But horror's image finds itself being ruined by lazy, direct-to-DVD crud and by movies like High Tension, where, in my case at least, a sumptuous horror feast was promised -- but a five-day-old Happy Meal was dropped in my lap instead.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Lions Gate and rated "R" for graphic bloody killings, terror, sexual content and language.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.