Whether or not you enjoy the French slasher film “High Tension” will be dictated by exactly 2 things: your ability to withstand copious, relentless doses of brutal violence, and your willingness to ignore the lumbering pink elephant of a final plot twist that renders the rest of the film utterly pointless. While I can’t get into the specifics here, I have to say that for me it managed to turn a genuinely discomforting, well-executed thriller into a gratuitous, self-contradicting misstep in a heartbeat. So my best advice is this: if you’re up for a squirm-inducing 65 minutes of genuinely disturbing carnage, check out this movie. At exactly minute 66, get up and walk out*.
Alex (Maiwenn) and Marie (Cecile de France) are two happy-go-lucky college gals who are heading to Alex’s family’s farm for the weekend to cram for finals. Actually, Alex is happy-go-lucky – Marie seems a bit brooding, to say the least. She apparently has trouble getting on with the gents and seems to have an unusually strong attachment to her friend. Alex, on the other hand, is bubbly, popular with the gents, and has a loving (and in this version, American) family. Shortly after arriving at the farmhouse, the family goes to bed and Marie retires to her attic guest room to listen to Reggae and masturbate (naturally), when from out of nowhere a man in coveralls (Philippe Nahon, the unforgettable butcher from “I Stand Alone”) rolls up in a rusty truck and rings the doorbell. And from that moment on, she doesn’t stop running.
The 20 minutes following the man’s arrival is as nail-biting and horrifying as things get, really – he systematically kills Alex’s entire family with a variety of implements (including a dresser, oddly enough) as Marie hides in the shadows, and then goes for Alex herself. Marie has been trying to both erase all evidence of her presence at the house and find ways to get help, none of which work out, and before she can do anything heroic Alex is tied up and dumped in the man’s truck. Marie hoists the knife she has gotten from the kitchen above her head and waits for the man to appear in the truck’s door – but he slams it shut without warning and takes off with the girls in the back. Their bloody journey takes them to a gas station (there’s more grisly carnage) and finally to what appears to be a set of abandoned greenhouses in the woods, where our story resolves itself in the most ridiculous way imaginable.
This may all sound quite diabolical and fun, and to an extent, it is: director Alexandre Aja is able to reach a fever pitch of pure, clammy-palmed terror and hold it for far longer than most films can (the sequence in the house is wholly unpleasant and probably entirely indefensible), and this is highly commendable in a day when horror directors can’t seem to carry suspense longer than it takes a violin to screech loudly in your ear. Instead of disposable jump-scares, Aja draws out the unpleasantness and douses it with copious amounts of blood. Die-hard horror fans and audiences who genuinely like to be scared will not be disappointed – this is certainly no walk in the park. I’d even go so far as to say that this film might leave casual horror fans a bit… well… fucked-up.
I’ll be the first to admit that I love to be led by the nose, and the myriad setups of Marie hiding from her captor as she tries to free Alex are a lot of fun. Bolstered by Cecile de France’s exceptional central performance, some of the sequences are positively nail-biting (the gas station hide-and-seek bit is particularly fun), and the cunning shifts from chilly restraint to over-the-top excess are suitably unnerving and effective. But as fun as it can be to give up control to a filmmaker, being pulled along by the nose can sour real fast if you’re led into a hornet’s nest or a pile of burning diapers – and that’s exactly what happens here. I won’t speak in any detail about the final twist, but it stings like a slap in the face. Take a step back, and it’s puzzling. Take another step back, and it’s just stupid. Take another, and it’s actually quite offensive. It’s bad enough to effectively ruin everything that comes before it, so I feel that I at least have to mention it here, even without any details. If M. Night Shyamalan’s movies piss you off, you haven’t seen anything – and his twists actually make sense.
So there’s been a lot of talk about both the dubbing into English and the cutting that was done to earn “High Tension” its R rating. I’ve seen both versions, and honestly, they’ve done as good a job with the dubbing as they could, opting to make Alex American and Marie bilingual so that they can use the original dialogue (and screaming) as much as possible during the important scenes. It’s a novel approach, and it certainly beats dubbing across the whole thing – let’s face it: us horror geeks are used to getting our Bad Italian Dub on, but for most folks it spells Instant Cheeseball. The early scenes (with the heaviest dubbing) are mostly expository dialogue anyway, so it’s not too terribly off-putting. As for the gore, there is a LOT left to be amazed at – I can tell where they snipped a bit here and there in 2 of the scenes, but it’s still incredibly intense and waaaaaaaaaay more over-the-top than “House of 1000 Corpses”, “Cabin Fever”, or any of the other so-called “return to hardcore horror” steamers that have hit screens in recent years. Were it not for the ending, this movie would blow all of them out of the water – not bad for a film coming from a country that doesn’t even really have a modern horror tradition to speak of. The powersaw scene is seriously one of the most disgusting and intense things I’ve ever seen on a big screen – hats off for that.
So the performances are uniformly good (well, it’s basically Cecile de France’s one-woman show, but she’s quite good – and strikingly attractive, to boot), the photography is lush and well-executed, and the blood flows in rivers. And were it not for a startlingly unnecessary twist that defies the very laws of physics, it’s a great little genre picture. And while part of me wants to give the film kudos for what it does right, I really can’t in good conscience let the pink elephant go unnoticed. Nice swing, but a foul ball nonetheless.
* For illustrative purposes only – I can’t guarantee the exact timecode reference for when things go to pot.