High Tension

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High Tension: Deeply Flawed, but Still Well Worth Seeing

Jun 3, 2005 (Updated Aug 10, 2008)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great visual style, Gianetto de Rossi gore.

Cons:The plot twist could be a really huge cheat.

The Bottom Line: Either a complete cop-out or one of the most sublime genre films in recent memory--and even I'm not really sure which it is.


Before we get started today, a word of warning. I rarely write film commentary that contains spoilers. I’m a firm believer in the notion that a critic can discuss a film and get the reader intrigued without giving away all of the great surprises the director and screenwriter have come up with. However, High Tension is a film that has a huge twist in the plot near the end—a twist that is going to inspire loads of discussion amongst anyone who sees it. So, this is the rare instance where a Mike_Bracken review contains a gigantic spoiler for the film being discussed. If you want to experience High Tension without being aware of the plot twist, then bookmark this and come back to it later. If you don’t mind that the plot twist is going to be revealed and discussed in-depth, then feel free to continue on to the review.

One thing becomes readily apparent to any horror fan as he watches Alexandre Aja’s French horror film High Tension--this guy grew up on '80s slasher films. Aja has crafted one of the slicker looking genre films to emerge in the past few years from somewhere other than Japan, and it constantly, and consistently, pays homage to the films of his youth while still remaining its own movie.

Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) are two college students off to visit Alex’s family. Unfortunately, they’re about to be terrorized by a maniac in a dilapidated truck who comes calling to the family homestead…or are they? What ensues is a tense fight for survival leading up to a twist ending that can be viewed as either outlandish or clever—and I’m still not sure which way I see it.

The film’s huge twist is that there is no psychotic truck driver—Marie herself is the killer. One’s initial reaction to this revelation is to generally assume that Aja has cheated his audience—if Marie is the killer, the film has some serious plot holes that aren’t ever addressed. Walking out of the theater after the screening of High Tension, this was my initial reaction.

However, I had this niggling feeling that I’d missed something. Further reflection caused me to remember the film’s opening framing device—Marie in a hospital, after being put through hell. This scene may be the key to understanding High Tension’s plot twist—rather than viewing the events in the film as legitimate and happening in narrative real time, one must instead look at them as memories from a clearly unreliable narrator. Much like Kevin Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, Marie’s story is one that simply can’t be taken at face value—therefore, the plot inconsistencies almost exist as a subtle reminder that Marie is telling us the tale, and that we can’t take everything she says as the truth.

That alone is interesting enough, however, Aja takes things a step farther with his well-defined love for horror movies. High Tension appears to be an elaborate homage to a number of different genre films. The truck driver looks a bit like a gone-to-seed Michael Myers (if he ditched the Shatner mask and moved to France); he acts a bit like Rusty Nail from Joy Ride; he drives a truck not unlike the one The Creeper cruises around in while stalking his prey in Jeepers Creepers; a bathroom stalking sequence is lifted almost directly from William Lustig’s Maniac; the beginning of the film has a great deal in common with Dean Koontz’s Intensity; etc.

The question is, are all of these things simply ideas that Aja wanted to pay homage to in his film, or are they instead another sly way of telling the audience that Marie is making up all of these elements? There’s no hint ever offered in the film that Marie is a fan of horror cinema, but is it really a stretch to imagine that she’s included numerous horror film elements to her story in order to make it play as more believable and to portray herself in a better light? After all, she is supposedly a virgin, as the early dialogue points out—and aren’t the virgins always the survivors of these films as opposed to the monsters?

This is the conundrum of High Tension--it’s never readily apparent which scenario might be true. If initial reactions are any indication, then most people appear to be viewing the plot twist as a huge cheat on the part of the filmmaker. It’s how I viewed it at first, and even now, after re-examining the film, I’m not entirely convinced that it wasn’t. However, the above-mentioned plot elements certainly make a strong case for it being something more than just a weak twist in a standard horror film. It’s unfortunate that the majority of High Tension’s audience isn’t going to be genre cinema literate enough to make that potential connection. Those of us who do, however, can certainly look at the film in a much different, and more intriguing, light.

Regardless of how you view the twist in the film’s narrative, there’s no denying High Tension is a pretty film to look at. Aja’s use of the camera and the cinematography are quite appealing. It’s never as overt as Argento or Bava’s work with the camera or the lurid colors, but there’s certainly some visual flair happening in the film.

The real star of High Tension, though, is Gianetto De Rossi’s gore. Astute genre fans will remember Gianetto’s work on Lucio Fulci gore epics like The Beyond, Zombie, etc.

De Rossi’s work here isn’t quite as over the top as it was in the Fulci films, but it’s a welcome return to form for one of the genre’s most beloved craftsmen. There’s no CGI in this film—all the FX work is done the old-fashioned way, and that alone earns my respect. There are numerous standout gore sequences (including the best use of a power tool in a horror film since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but the brutal beheading of Alex’s father, and the gruesome slashing of her mother’s throat are the cream of the crop as far as carnage goes. High Tension isn’t a hardcore gore film, but it more than delivers the goods in terms of onscreen mayhem.

It remains to be seen whether Haute Tension is a decent genre film with a cop-out twist or if it’s a sublime horror movie that manages to fool even its own audience. To get to the bottom of that issue, one would almost have to speak to director Aja personally—and even then, we may never really know the answer. However, there’s no denying this film is intense, brutal, and lovingly filmed. That is also inspires debate and conversation is the proverbial icing on the cake.


Recommend this product? Yes

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