Sometimes it takes the vision and soul of a young filmmaker to shake a staid genre. Just as Spielberg shocked everyone with Jaws way back in 1975, so High Tension's makers hope to achieve in 2005. Born form the love of foreign horror masterpieces, the French filmmakers Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur set about developing a French horror movie to live up to their lofty peers and expectations.
Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn Le Besco) are two friends that met together on holiday and are both heading back to Alexia's parent's farm house for a brief stay. How brief we cannot tell as, on the first night, some decidedly off colour happenings interrupt matters. You see, a redneck homicidal rapist enters the house and proceeds to have his way with everyone in it, normally with more than a splatter of the red stuff. Let's put it this way - I never knew you could use stair banisters as guillotine...
If the filmmakers maintain that this isn't a gory movie, and I suppose it isn't compared to some, to me it certainly has a tad more gore than your usual movie fair. This may put some folk off watching a movie, but to me the gore is every bit as necessary in this movie as toothy grins are in a merchant ivory one. Without a bit of visceral blood and guts you wouldn't feel frightened by the antagonist (played well by Philippe Nahon). The fact that he is creative in his macabre pursuits adds a whole dollop of thoroughly repellent personality to his well designed onscreen appearance. One memorable scene sees the killer (who remains unnamed...) pour Jack Daniel's over someone tied up in the back of his van. He then lights up a cigarette and playfully toys with throwing the lit match on the poor tied up soul. The enjoyment on his face and the horror on the other person's face do a good job of selling the scene. However without knowing what the killer is capable of we wouldn't be nearly as fearful ourselves of what is to happen to the captive.
The art design of some of the more gruesome scenes is very well executed; one throat cut in particular was very well done, and far more effective than Tarantino's OTT Sin City effort. In fact the whole art design is superb from the dilapidated look of the farmhouse to the Duel inspired killer's van. Everything seems well in place and truly believable.
I suppose that the true litmus of whether a horror flick is effective is how many times the movie genuinely shocks you. I have to admit to being shocked three times, which isn't too bad but not great. On reflection there are three things (aren't there ever?) wrong with High Tension that hold it back from being a truly memorable slice of extra rare horror steak:
Firstly the horror elements start fairly rapidly after the movie starts. There is precious little time to get any true attachment of the protagonists so their deaths are not emotionally felt (with possibly one exception) and have a reduced impact. Instead we are left to “feel” physical pain through the onscreen violence rather than empathise with the loss of a human being. Secondly the story, such as it is, is very basic. There isn't any Se7en style in depth character interaction to add spice to events; instead there is a linear join-the-dots plot that sees a replication of basic events in different locations. A notable exception in a petrol station ratchet's up the eponymous Tension considerably, making me yearn for a different local or different approach entirely. A wonderful movie called The Dark Hours achieves the same basic ends as High Tension but with Dark Hours, though, the rich back-story and character personas allow for a branching story that keeps the audience guessing. High Tension, with few exceptions, is filmed on rails, plot points coming in largely with big neon signs above them. Which leads me nicely to...
The Ending. It is, if I may be so bold, rubbish. Not because you can guess the ending per se (which you can after a certain point) but that it makes no sense. If you are going to have an “ohh! So that's what this is all about!” sixth sense clanger then at least make some tacit effort to get everything tied together. Basically, if the final events are to hold true then a scene at the beginning of the movie is physically, in the most literal of senses, impossible. I felt cheated by what is a very tacky cheat to get the audience to think down a certain road. This lack of true ingenuity on the part of the writers in the third reason I reckon this movie doesn't make it into the top league of horror classics.
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