High Tension

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 07/12/05 01:46:04

"It doesn't make a helluva lot of sense, but who says it has to?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The horror film reviewing and watching communities were split recently when the 2003 French giallo “Haute Tension” (“High Tension”) finally went into wide release in North America. Some of the discord can be laid at the paws of distributor Lions Gate for its odd manipulation of the product, but most of it raises questions of just what horror films are, where they come from in the imagination, and how they should be reviewed.

Not to sound like a whiner or anything, but movie reviewers have their professional problems, too. But first, let me tell you about the reasonably new—it’s been on the festival circuit for a couple of years now—French thriller, “High Tension.”

Cecile de France plays Marie, a young woman who is accompanying her female friend Alex (Maiwenn) to the isolated farm house occupied by Alex’ father, mother, and young brother. The house, in the middle of a corn field, is more than a bit run-down. Hinges and doors squeak in the best tradition of cinematic Bad Places and Alex’ pere (Andrei Finti) is photographed in ways that make you think he may have more on his mind than giving Marie a pleasant weekend in the country. Hanging over the place and the people is that indefinable air of creepiness you can sometimes feel when you’re a stranger in a strange land.

It seems that almost immediately everyone heads off to bed. Marie is given the guest bedroom, which is alone and above the family’s rooms. You’re not quite sure that she feels comfortable in this place, but she puts on her headphones, lies down on the bed, and begins to masturbate.

After everyone but Marie has gone to sleep, an oddly armored truck pulls up at the house and the driver, a cover-all suited maniac who looks a little like a demented Albert Finney (it’s really Philippe Nahon) steps up to the door and begins pounding on it. Alex’ father goes to check on the mysterious visitor and is quickly and bloodily killed.

Mom is next and when little brother tries to escape into the corn, the killer follows him with a shotgun. Bye-bye, baby.

The grubby murderer returns to the house to abduct Alex. Since we have earlier seen him doing the nasty with another girl’s disconnected head, we know that this kidnapping does not bode well for his latest victim.

Let me pause for a moment to tell you that Lions Gate Films, after boasting that they would release the film uncut, chickened out and edited it down to an “R” rating. Given the degree of violence and gore that is left in, one has to wonder what will be included on the DVD.

The film goes from being about innocence stalked to evil pursued as Marie borrows a car to chase the killer and rescue her friend. The bad guy seemed to suspect that there was someone else in the house, but he couldn’t find her and so settles for what he already has.

Whether or not she succeeds in her rescue attempt is at the heart of the movie’s second half. I won’t go into detail about what happens.

Now this is where we get to the reviewer’s problem, and it’s one that arises with most horror films. How much slack do you give a film of this sort when it comes to illogical plotting? Should it all make perfect sense when you look back over it, or do you allow for the fact that horror films are visualized nightmares and nightmares follow a logic—or illogic—all their own.

When this works well within the framework of an individual film, we tend to comment approvingly on its surreal quality. When it works badly, we just bitch that it doesn’t make sense and let it go at that.

European horror films, since the height of the Italian giallo boom in the late 1960s-mid-1970s, have tended to put scaring the audience before all other concerns, including following the dictates of reason and even physical possibility. I can’t go into details re “High Tension” without giving away some important plot points, but the picture is full of things that just couldn’t happen in the real world. But they’re scary as hell.

Is that enough with this kind of picture, or should we demand that narrative logic follow real world models? We’ve all been frustrated when secondary dim bulb protagonists go into a dark room and then walk backwards. We know they’re going to bump into something they’d prefer to avoid. When we were children, we screamed at the screen to tell the character s/he was doing something even a goofy little kid wouldn’t do.

Is such behavior on the part of the characters just a horror movie cliché, or does it represent visually the disorientation of dreams? (Probably both.)

I have become convinced that the illogic of horror movie narrative derives from the Gothic concern with dreams, and as such it is not a basis for condemning the film.

Lions Gate has partially dubbed the film, but left most of it in French. During the “most of it,” there is little dialogue. Maybe this odd blend of English and French is just Lions Gate’s way of adding to the unreality. Or it could just be their way of saving a buck or two.

“High Tension” was written by Gregory Levasseur and director Alexandre Aja, and as a vehicle for keeping you on the edge of your seat, it works just dandy, thank you. If that’s what you want, and you can live with those hey-wait-a-minute moments, go for it.

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