High Tension

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/09/05 23:52:36

"No matter what the language or title, it still stinks."
1 stars (Sucks)

The new horror film “High Tension” (previously known as “Haute Tension” and “Switchblade Romance”) is a cross between the unapologetically nasty slasher films of the late 1970's-early 1980's (the ones made before the genre was afflicted with terminal irony–“Williamsonitis,” as it is called in both “The Physicians’s Desk Reference” and “The Filmgoer’s Companion”) and the flashy French genre exercises of the likes of Luc Besson (who gets a presentation credit here). Since these happen to be two of my favorite cinematic sub-genres, I went into the film with higher-than-normal expectations of seeing two great tastes tasting great together, only to be rewarded with an utterly indigestible monstrosity–the film equivalent of topping a lobster with hot fudge. It is a sick, silly, smug and stupid exercise that doesn’t even bother to disguise the raw contempt that it has for anyone dumb enough to actually fork over money to endure it for themselves.

The set-up, with its retro-simplicity, does sound promising for anyone weaned on the ultra-nasty likes of “Last House on the Left” and its ilk. Two college students–the boyish and shy Marie (Cecile de France) and the more outgoing (you know what I mean) Alex (Maiwenn)–are driving off to spend the weekend in the country at the (naturally) isolated farmhouse where Marie’s family lives in order to prepare for finals. While winding through the cornfields, Alex claims that she sees someone lurking in the fields and convinces Marie to get out and check it out. It is all a prank–one of those things that people do in horror films in order to pad out the running time–but it appears that there is someone in the cornfield after all, a mysterious man (Philippe Nahon) in a beat-up truck who, as we first see him, appears to be getting orally pleasured in the front seat. Looks are deceiving and the gross punch-line is our first indication that co-writer/director Alexandre Aja will cheerfully go to any lengths–and steal outright from any source (the bit is an inversion of the immortal visual pun from “Re-Animator”)–in an effort to momentarily distract his viewers.

The girls have barely gotten to bed when all hell literally breaks loose. The man breaks in, chains up Alex and proceeds to slaughter her parents and little brother in the goriest manner possible (let me just say that the shotgunning of the tyke is the least repulsive and off-putting of the murders on display) before driving off with her in the back of his truck. What he doesn’t realize is that Marie has also managed to slip into the back of the truck as well and is determined to save her friend. At a gas station, she sneaks out of the truck and tries to get the lone attendant to help her, but that all ends badly–especially for the attendant. When she is unable to convince the police of her story, Marie grabs a car and follows along in pursuit of the truck for one last confrontation. This, of course, winds up being merely the prelude to . . . well, one of the silliest and most fraudulent endings that I have ever seen. It is so bad, in fact, that I am tempted to break the sacred Critic Code and spoil it for you in order to prevent you from blowing money on it.<

Any horror fan worth his or her salt can look at that plot description (and no, I am hardly leaving anything out) and see that “High Tension” brings nothing fresh to the party. The basic plot is an unholy marriage of the collected works of Dean Koontz and Donald Kaufman (and if you are reduced to borrowing story ideas from the likes of Dean Koontz, you might want to rethink your choice of career) while the murder sequences are reminiscent of the kills in a Dario Argento film, lacking only the creativity, the visceral power and the strange beauty that the Italian master usually brings to his ballets of blood. By the end, when the mad killer is running after the innocent prey while wielding a ginormous power saw, Aja isn’t even trying to disguise the origins for his “original” story.

If these were the only problems with “High Tension,” I might be able to forgive them–after all, it isn’t the first horror movie to create itself almost entirely from things borrowed from other, superior examples of the genre. On the plus side, the two lead girls are reasonably sympathetic and believable–at least until the screenplay goes haywire–and Nahon, who seems to have been cast solely as an in-joke reference to his portrayal of an even-more irredeemable monster in Gaspar Noe’s “I Stand Alone,” makes for a reliable figure of quiet, implacable brutality. While Aja has made a terrible film, he at least knows how to make a good-looking terrible film–the visuals are far more graceful than you usually seen in a low-budget slasher film not directed by John Carpenter. As a bonus, horror fans will also be relieved to learn that while this version has been cut from an NC-17 to an R, it does not skimp on the red stuff at all–this is probably the goriest movie to get a major release in the U.S. since “The Passion of the Christ.” (The chief difference between the two cuts, both of which I have seen, is that a show-stopping decapitation–which almost needs to be seen to be disbelieved–has been slightly trimmed; we still get the point but we now don’t get the actual sight of the head flying off and the neck spouting CGI gore.)

No, my objection to the film is a simple and direct one–it cheats. As I mentioned, the film ends with a ridiculous twist, one of those things that is supposed to make us go back and think about all of the clues that we missed. The problem is that Aja apparently wasn’t confident enough that his story could hold up along those lines so he throws in additional elements that make absolutely no sense if we are to believe in the revelations of the final scenes. These aren’t even tiny little loose ends that I am speaking about–these are gaping plot discrepancies that scatters whatever plausibility the story might have had to the winds. For example, we are treated to a glimpse of something from the point-of-view of a store security camera. Since the camera is not being looked at by anyone, the P.O.V. that it displays should theoretically be a neutral one. Nevertheless, Aja rigs it so that we see one thing at one point and something entirely different later on once the jig is up. What is especially enraging about this particular moment is that it is completely irrelevant–it adds nothing to the proceedings and exists only so that Aja can flat-out lie to viewers in an effort to keep their attention for a few more minutes. Even the shittiest early-80's slasher films usually had more respect for their audiences than Aja displays here.

Because horror is big business these days (hell, even the puerile likes of “Boogeyman” made some bank) and because Lion’s Gate has cleverly disguised the fact that it is French in origin (although most of the film has been awkwardly dubbed into English–the film can’t decide if Alex’s parents have been living on the farm for years or whether they are new arrivals–they have inexplicably left several portions in their original language, sometimes switching back and forth in the middle of a scene), “High Tension” will probably score with kids looking for a Saturday night barf-o-rama. Hell, I am always in the mood for a Saturday night barf-o-rama, but not when the film in question treats me like a jackass that will swallow anything. It isn’t scary, it isn’t creepy and it isn’t even intriguingly gross. It is just a mean and idiotic example of a cinematic geek show, one that will leave viewers feeling either unspeakable depressed or profoundly ripped-off.

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