Before we get started today, a word of warning. I rarely write film commentary that contains spoilers. Im 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 enda 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 dont mind that the plot twist is going to be revealed and discussed in-depth, then feel free to continue on to the review.
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One thing becomes readily apparent to any horror fan as he watches Alexandre Ajas 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 Alexs family. Unfortunately, theyre 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 cleverand Im still not sure which way I see it.
The films huge twist is that there is no psychotic truck driverMarie herself is the killer. Ones initial reaction to this revelation is to generally assume that Aja has cheated his audienceif Marie is the killer, the film has some serious plot holes that arent 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 Id missed something. Further reflection caused me to remember the films opening framing deviceMarie in a hospital, after being put through hell. This scene may be the key to understanding High Tensions plot twistrather 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 Spaceys character in The Usual Suspects, Maries story is one that simply cant be taken at face valuetherefore, the plot inconsistencies almost exist as a subtle reminder that Marie is telling us the tale, and that we cant 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 Lustigs Maniac; the beginning of the film has a great deal in common with Dean Koontzs 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? Theres no hint ever offered in the film that Marie is a fan of horror cinema, but is it really a stretch to imagine that shes 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 outand arent the virgins always the survivors of these films as opposed to the monsters?
This is the conundrum of High Tension--its 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. Its how I viewed it at first, and even now, after re-examining the film, Im not entirely convinced that it wasnt. 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. Its unfortunate that the majority of High Tensions audience isnt 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 films narrative, theres no denying High Tension is a pretty film to look at. Ajas use of the camera and the cinematography are quite appealing. Its never as overt as Argento or Bavas work with the camera or the lurid colors, but theres certainly some visual flair happening in the film.
The real star of High Tension, though, is Gianetto De Rossis gore. Astute genre fans will remember Gianettos work on Lucio Fulci gore epics like The Beyond, Zombie, etc.
De Rossis work here isnt quite as over the top as it was in the Fulci films, but its a welcome return to form for one of the genres most beloved craftsmen. Theres no CGI in this filmall 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 Alexs father, and the gruesome slashing of her mothers throat are the cream of the crop as far as carnage goes. High Tension isnt 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 its 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 personallyand even then, we may never really know the answer. However, theres no denying this film is intense, brutal, and lovingly filmed. That is also inspires debate and conversation is the proverbial icing on the cake.
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