It may be hard for teens of today to realize that once upon a time horror movies were not feel-good rollercoaster rides of thrills. There was a time when horror films were just as nasty as the killers and monsters they were about – small, grimy films that were looking to put the audience through as much pain and terror as the characters in the film itself.
High Tension is a throwback to exactly that kind of nasty, mean and unrelenting movie. The direct fathers of High Tension aren’t The Ring or Boogeyman – they’re The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I Spit on Your Grave.
The plot is simple, which is what this kind of film demands. Butchy Marie (star Cecile De France) is going to her school friend Alex’s rural home. Set deep amid a sea of menacing corn stalks, the house is isolated and lonely. And it doesn’t take long before we know that something is very, very wrong. And it doesn’t take much longer for everything to go right to hell – a strange man in coveralls comes to the house and quickly cuts through Alex’s family, her father, her mother and even her young brother. Marie is hidden in the attic, terrified, until her friend is taken in the killer’s van and she has to make the choice to get involved.
The rest of the film is a chase, the usual cat and mouse stuff you get in a standard slasher film. But the plot’s not the point, and that’s not what’s important in this film – the form is standard, but it’s all about what director Alexandre Aja does with the film in between. He creates almost unbearable scenes of tension, punctuated with some of the best gore I’ve seen in movies in maybe a decade or so – real, old fashioned deep red splatter. I forgot what that looked like!
High Tension has beheadings and throat slashing and shotgunnings and plenty of blunt force trauma, a horrifyingly shattered foot and a lopped off hand, torture and general cruelty. Those are the elements of a damn fine slasher film. And High Tension is nasty, gory fun.
In fact, I bet you’re going to be hard pressed to find anyone who likes serious horror films who doesn’t like High Tension. Or at least the majority of High Tension. Where people split, though, is at the end of the film. I’m not going to give it away, and I’m going to try to not give any spoilery hints, but I will say that the ending of the film is really horrible. Just an atrocious concept, and not really well executed. But here’s the thing – by this point the film has built up so much momentum and had been so great (and to be fair, delivered more great gore even after this reveal) that I was willing to forgive it. Did the ending make a whit of sense? None. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t even bother to give the concept a cursory examination for logic, and maybe that’s OK. Most of the great splatter pictures don’t hold up to real story examination.
Obviously your mileage is going to vary. For me the film just worked – after about ten minutes I was sold, and whatever it threw at me I was going to accept. High Tension makes it pretty clear early on that the film is only interested in one thing – keeping you on the edge of your seat and then knocking you the hell off of it every few minutes. And it succeeds completely in that.
What’s sort of interesting to a nerd like me, and you can safely skip this section if you don’t like reading too much subtext into films (and no, this isn’t about the gay angle, which isn’t subtext so much as almost announced at the beginning of the movie: “MARIE LOVES ALEX”), is that the film is a mixture of dub and subtitles. The story has been slightly rejiggered for American audiences (it’s a French movie, for all y’all who didn’t know) to explain the mix – Alex and her family is American, and Marie is going to their house to do some English language immersion time. De France dubs her own lines in the English sections, by the way, and it makes a big difference.
But what the change in the story does is sort of turn the film into an answer to the whole Freedom Fries debacle at the beginning of the Iraq War – a strange and nameless French killer shows up and starts mowing down an American family. This is certainly not the intended take on the film, but it seems like you can’t miss it as the French take an American form and turn it back around on us.
The dubbing and subtitle issue isn’t that big a deal – I would hazard a guess that the combined dialogue of High Tension would fit, double spaced, on eight pages. There’s something beautifully, purely cinematic about this kind of film, which is why it transcends all nationalities, and High Tension, just like Halloween or the best of the Friday the 13th films, could be watched with the dialogue completely out (you can’t lose the sound effects or music though – these are integral. I have often said that Halloween without the music would just not work) and you would still get every nuance that is intended.
For some people the films that recall their childhood are full of stupid adventure and action beats, with wry heroes and laser guns. For me the movies that evoke falling in love with movies are full of splattering entrails and abject sociopathy towards the characters and the audience (for whatever that says about me). I’m happy to say that High Tension is one of those movies, and I loved it.
9.0 out of 10