Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Cecile De France, Maiwenn, Philippe Nahon, Frank Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea
This French import is the year's cause celebre of horror, but I didn't find all that much to celebrate.
That the film's director has been tapped to helm a remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes seems just about right, since Alexandre Aja's idea of horror seems thoroughly grounded (I'm tempted to say "bogged") in early Craven, most especially Craven's notorious Last House on the Left.
Frankly, I can think of few more drearily nasty -- and spectacularly amateurish -- movies than Last House on the Left. In Aja's favor, his film may well be drearily nasty, but it's far from amateurish in appearance.
The screenplay is something else again. Reduced to its simplest terms, High Tension is a garden-variety slasher flick that's been tarted up with a much-discussed trick ending that telegraphs itself from the opening shot.
Now, at this point, I'm going to suggest that readers who intend to see High Tension put this review aside for now, because it's impossible to discuss this movie without indulging in spoilers.
The plot itself is simple to the point of being almost nonexistent. Marie (Cecile De France, Around the World in 80 Days) and her American friend, Alex (Maiwenn, The Fifth Element), go to the country to stay with Alex's transplanted parents and her cowboy suit-clad little brother (the French apparently remain convinced that American children are still doing the Roy Rogers thing).
Ah, but it transpires that the French countryside is just as inhospitable a place as anything rural America has to offer -- witness the bulky gent (Philippe Nahon, I Stand Alone) in the really beat up van. You know, the one who just pleasured himself with a severed head and then unceremoniously dropped said head out the window (now he obviously isn't exuding the spirit of bonhomie). And wouldn't you know it? He's gonna pay a call on Marie and Alex and the folks in that isolated farmhouse.
Mayhem -- the unpleasant kind -- ensues. At times, it's effectively done, but it's all so sadistic that it's more repellent than actually scary. After offing the rest of the family in various sadistic ways and having missed Marie, who was hiding under the bed (why not the sheets?), the man kidnaps Alex. Unbeknownst to the kidnapper, Marie is also in the van with her friend and is determined to save her. That's pretty much all the story there is -- except for the twist.
Taking a page from Blair Witch 2 -- where the idea that video never lies, but film does, made a lot more sense -- High Tension tells you what's going on in the very first scene when Marie asks, "Is it recording?" Then Marie is pursued through the woods by someone or something -- but that proves to be only a dream. Soon she's telling Alex her dream and confiding that she was running away from herself. This is followed by the first of a few conversations that are designed to present Marie as a sexually repressed lesbian who's in love with the apparently straight Alex. Not long afterwards, Marie is found in her room at the farm, indulging in some self-gratification while listening to a pop song that constantly reminds her she's "only a girl." All the while, our homicidal friend is preparing to make his entrance.
If all this high school-level Freud doesn't tell you pretty clearly what the trick ending is, you need to see more movies. The real question is why High Tension takes this route.
Is the film trying to make a profound statement about sexual repression? Is it a barely contained screed on the "evils" of homosexuality? Or is it merely a case of an exploitation filmmaker tripping himself up on his own cleverness in an attempt to be taken more seriously? (It ain't for nothing that the film includes a scene obviously patterned on one in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.) I'm inclined to think that the movie's all of these things, but that its main objective is to get people to argue about the damned movie. In this last regard, the High Tension is fabulously successful.
On any other level, though, the movie's pretty suspect. Even allowing that the trick ending is (sort of) justified by the cheesy setup, too many aspects of the film are just plain nonsensical.
The business with the guy in the van and the severed head is completely outside the realm of the narrative as it finally emerges, and exists only as a cross-reference to Marie's masturbation scene. Some things just don't lend themselves to the whole truth-or-illusion theme and only result in questions the film can't answer. Is the van real? Where did it come from? What about the car? What about the car chasing the van? And on and on it goes.
Take this trick ending away, though, and you've got nothing but a standard maniac-on-the-loose story that turns into a revenge tale. You've seen it 10 times or more, and some of it you'll even recognize. The movie's heart may be with Last House on the Left, but that doesn't keep it from cribbing scenes and concepts from Jeepers Creepers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Re-Animator, or any Friday the 13th or Halloween entry you care to name. And apart from being nicely photographed, this is a sloppy film in many regards -- though one can't rightly blame the filmmaker for Lion's Gate's bizarre decision to badly dub part of the movie in English and subtitle the rest. From the annoying soundtrack -- which confuses getting on your nerves with inducing fear -- to the movie's humorless unpleasantness, it's really just nothing but exploitation junk that's buffaloed itself into thinking it's somehow significant. Rated R for strong graphic violence.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke