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High Tension (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

High Tension


Starring Cécile DeFrance, Maïwenn, Phillippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea, Marco Claudiu Pascu, Jean-Claude de Goros, Bodgan Uritescu and Gabriel Spaihu.

Screenplay by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur.

Directed by Alexandre Aja.

Distributed by Lion’s Gate Films.  89 minutes.  Rated R.

The 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.

All of this is mentioned because High Tension is indeed, undoubtedly the first French slasher film.

The 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) must 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 cannot get the police to believe that she is in danger, the gendarmes seem to be quite a few steps behind all the carnage.

So, 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.  In fact, 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.

The 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.

All 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.  (6/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved. Posted: June 12, 2005.

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