Not too long ago I dipped my toes into the New French Extremity movement by watching the home invasion gorefest, À L’interieur. Seeing how Shudder has given me access to the big three French Extremity films, I decided to check out one of the ones that blew the door wide open for films like À L’interieur and Martyrs to enter horror’s filmography, Alexandre Aja’s twisted slasher: Haute Tension.
Haute Tension (High Tension in English, and sometimes known as Switchblade Romance) is the second full length film by Alexandre Aja who is best known for directing the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. It stars a tomboyish Cécil de France and Maïwenn Le Besco as the punk rocker Marie and the preppy Alex, two college girls who are retreating to Alex’s family’s country home to study for their upcoming exams. Horror movie does and horror movies do, and their peaceful, quiet time away from civilization turns into a Hellish nightmare.
A mysterious man invades Alex’s family’s home, systematically slaughtering them before kidnapping Alex and driving off with her chained up in the back of his rusted truck. Marie stows away in the back of the vehicle and it’s up to her to figure out how to get her and her friend away from the killer and off to safety.
I wasn’t sure how to feel going into this movie. I had a hard time watching a couple of the particularly extreme scenes in À L’interieur, and I had read that Haute Tension had it’s fair share of brutal, gut-wrenching violence in it too. I have also had the narrative spoiled from front to back before going in, which really is my fault for perusing horror forums, so I can’t be mad that I knew how this film ended while I watched it. Despite this, I still enjoyed most of the film pretty thoroughly.
While definitely gory and violent, Haute Tension doesn’t stand out among it’s blood gushing brethren and doesn’t even compare to À L’interieur. A lot of the violence is campy and over the top, which feels a little discontinuous from the more grounded and realistic characters and dialogue (not that there’s much dialogue, especially in the second half of the film, but what is there is pretty solid). All manner of tools and equipment are used to dispatch and dismember throughout the film, but what really brings it together and sells it all is the acting. De France plays a great counterpoint to Philippe Nahon (Irreversible, I Stand Alone) who plays the unnamed killer, both of them able to convey so much with a single grimace or grunt. I think that the low-dialogue screenplay was a boon to the movie, as the film has a simple and straightforward enough premise and sequence of events that any extra dialogue for the sake of exposition or character development would just feel forced and crammed in.
Haute Tension offers some in terms of style as well as substance. It’s not overtly stylized, but Aja does have some fun adding some personal flair to the camera work and blocking. Some of the lighting in a couple scenes was a little below average, some continuity errors are kind of jarring or obvious, and a boom mic slipped in for a little bit near the beginning but when all is said and done, I honestly think people will remember this as a well crafted film. Aja and his editor do a great job flipping between lingering shots and quick cuts, using them to help ramp up the tension or to help convey the reigning chaos over a scene. I wouldn’t call him one of the best directors in horror today, but he definitely knows how to make a fine looking and feeling movie.
I want to get into some heavy spoilers below, so for those of you who want to stay mostly blind going in, here’s what I have for you: Haute Tension is a tightly crafted, efficient little slasher/ thriller. It clocks in at almost an hour and thirty minutes on the dot, and doesn’t waste much of the time it does have. Unfortunately for me, knowing the plot of the film before seeing was detrimental to my enjoyment of the film, as it really diminishes in quality and tension when you know how most of the scenes will end. I don’t think this is a movie that will benefit much from repeat viewings, but I would say that Haute Tension is a solid horror flick and should be on any horror/ thriller fan’s watchlist. On to the spoilers!
So, a problem a lot of people have with the ending, and I don’t blame them. The Fight Club “these two characters were actually the same character the whole time!” shtick feels like an old and flimsy way to write yourself out of a plot hole, but alas, it is still a super common way to end a story. Aja and Haute Tension deal with this in a slightly smarter way, playing the movie off as the retelling of events from Marie in the hospital. Marie is a crazy person, she’s an unreliable narrator creating the nameless killer as a separate entity from herself to justify the killings when explaining them to the police. The very first line of the film is Marie asking if they are recording her, implying it will be used as evidence or as testimony for the events that happened. She doesn’t know that they’ve figured out she has been the killer since the start. A lot of the plot holes that people rag on are actually explained in small subtle details throughout the movie. Items that the killer just seems to have on him are often shown before being used somewhere in the environment before being re-purposed as a tool for killing, and there are parallels between the way that Marie and the killer behave. Certain things are completely left out, however, and are little too glaring in an otherwise well handled twist ending. Apparently the killer’s truck was included in a deleted scene, since there’s no way for Marie to have a rusted old truck at the ready. The truck was apparently in the corn field outside the house, and even with the deleted scene the logic holding Marie’s truck up is already flimsy at best.
If you dig horror flicks, check out Haute Tension for your next movie night. It isn’t the goriest or scariest film I’ve ever seen (not even close in both categories), but it’s competent and well made enough that any horror fan can enjoy it. It’s got a couple plot holes big enough to drive a bus through, but honestly I’m willing to overlook them because of how solid it was everywhere else.