French aren't really known for absurdly violent mad-killer films a la The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For one thing, it just doesn't sound
right -- would you really want to go to Le Massacre de Tronçonneuse de
Villefranche? Besides, there is something decidedly American about
crazed and slobbering psychopaths holding sway over rural areas; for the
French they would seem rather gauche. French cinema also tends
to explore the meanings of every human move and emotion. It leaves no
room for pure thoughtless evil. And, let's face it, you don't run
across a whole hell of a lot of rednecks in the South of France.
of this is mentioned because High Tension is indeed, undoubtedly the
first French slasher film.
storyline is simple. Two college party girls (Cécile DeFrance and
Maïwenn) go to
visit one of their parents' farms in the middle of the boonies of la Cote
d'Azur. (See, I told you, it just doesn't sound right...) On
their first night there, the family farm is attacked by a psychopathic
murderer. Even before he starts killing everyone (which is pretty much
right away) you can tell that he's insane and bad, because he is a French
and yet he is fat (doesn't he know the French would rather smoke than eat?),
he wears a drab, filthy pair of overalls and drives a hideous, rusty old box
of a truck. Oh, yeah, and he also has oral sex with disembodied heads.
That's about it really; the two girls try to escape the clutches of the evil
man despite the fact that he seems supernaturally knowledgeable of their
every move. Alexia (Maïwenn)
is locked in the truck and Marie (DeFrance) has to follow into different
dangerous areas -- a lonely mini-market, a greenhouse, the cornfield -- to
save her friend (and possible love interest.). Marie is witness to
horrifying acts of violence as the mysterious killer leaves a trail of
bodies oozing over the French countryside. Just like her American
compatriots, Marie often places herself in the way of danger with little or
no thought that perhaps she shouldn't be doing what she is doing. Also
just like in the American films she can not get the police to believe that
she is in danger, the gendarmes seem to be quite a few steps behind
all the carnage.
as you can tell, High Tension is not exactly an original or
groundbreaking film. (Well, I suppose it is for its homeland.)
However, a formula film can still be well-made and entertaining, and for the
most part, High Tension is quite terrifying. The direction by
Alexandre Aja is taut and disturbing, he certainly does have the genre down.
Aja has been tapped to direct a remake of the cult horror freak fave The Hills Have Eyes, which tells you what direction he
is headed -- for better or for worse. I'd be interested what kind of
film Aja could make if he just aimed a little higher.
transfer of the film from French (where it was released in 2003) to dubbed
English is more problematic; while at least some of the original cast
members dubbed their own words, as always with dubbing it is often hard not
to notice due to the peoples' words not matching their lip movements.
It seems like it would have made more sense to do the film in French with
subtitles -- particularly since the movie seems to slip and do just that for
extended conversations and sometimes entire scenes. At first, it
appears that for some reason they only spoke French when the characters were
cursing. Later even that apparent guideline falls apart, they suddenly
slip in and out of their native tongue without any apparent rhyme or reason.
this being said, for the first two-thirds of High Tension it is a
very effective genre picture; scary, gory, disorienting and disturbing.
However, the film is hobbled by a truly awful twist ending in which the
audience doesn't feel surprised, they just feel cheated. The
denouement is literally impossible, even if you were willing to give the
film the most generous benefit of the doubt. It is certainly in-bounds
for a horror film to try and pull the rug out from under you; but it's not
fair to anyone to suddenly try and tell the audience that they were never
standing on a rug, they were wading in a river.
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Posted: June 12, 2005.