MTV Geek LOVES Halloween — so we’ve decided to share our fave frightful movies, TV shows, comics, and books with you all month long!
Upon its release, the French slasher import “High Tension” was alternately lauded as a wonderfully violent jolt to the horror genre (well, at least by me), and as anything from noxiously misogynistic and anti-gay in other corners (there might be something to one or both of those points). Still, the 2003 film from writer-director Alexandre Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur is such a foul and horrifically propulsive affair, that as a film fan raised, in part, on a diet of horror movies, it’s hard to dismiss because of its problematic elements.
So let’s head back to the French countryside and talk about serial killers, closeted lesbian panic, and see if we can consider where it all went wrong with the ending.
****Spoilers to follow****
Looking forward to the isolation of the countrys, college friends Marie (Cécile De France, “Mesrine: Killer Instinct”) and Alexia (Maïwenn, “The Fifth Element’s” Plavalaguna), head out to Alexia’s family home for a weekend of studying. What they don’t know is that a grotesque and vicious killer is stalking Alexia, and after he leaves a house full of dead bodies behind him to get to the woman, it’s up to Marie to find and save her.
Aja has credited anything from novelist Dean Koontz’s “Intensity” to the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as points of inspiration for his and Levasseur’s film. But neither of those works are as out and out explicitly sex and violence-fueled as “High Tension,” which sees human bodies crushed, cut, battered, and mangled in any number of ways as the film’s killer works his will. Why does he want Alexia so badly? And what is Marie willing to do to save her?
Actress Cécile De France looks leaner and meaner here than she has in some of her other French and English-language work, hacking off her hair into a boyish pixie cut for the role, and carrying herself with an aggressive, almost mannish gate. It’s a wonder that Maïwenn’s character is oblivious to the obvious crush her best friend and confidante has for her (see the early tension in the car scene where they’re discussing hookups from the previous night at the club–Marie’s face is that of a jilted lover, not a disappointed friend). De France succeeds in amping her character up to a reluctant heroine, never letting her fear be eclipsed by her strength.
She makes such a, frankly, kickass horror heroine that when the final reveal is that she’s been the killer all along comes around, it upends the movie and threatens to dismantle everything that came before. In fact, if you pull at the threads too much about some of the shifts in perspective and where Marie is and when during the course of “High Tension,” the movie as a whole becomes – is – an insane, irreconcilable mess.
But for all that, it’s maybe 75 to 80% of its running time an excellent chase and kill thriller. The villain, played on-camera by sometime French film scumbag Philippe Nahon (I say this in the most respectful way), is nothing so much as a primal, gross animal of sexual and physical aggression. He tools around the countryside in his dilapidated truck, and the first time we see him he’s expressing his ample sexual urges in, well, an unexpected way with a severed head. The raw force of the villain versus the goodness and bravery of Marie are two perfectly complimentary elements to the film.
That’s also what becomes problematic when you dig into the relationship between Marie and the killer (or the more classy-sounding “Le tueur” in the credits), the more uncomfortable it feels. If this is some kind of split, outward perspective for Marie, does this mean this is how she sees men? Is that her heroic fantasy: to save the object of her affection from all of the slavering, perverse, brutal men of the world? I don’t have any answers to these, but they’re questions that make a viewer like myself who was pretty into the ride up until the big reveal a little queasy about the motives (or absence of awareness) on the part of the filmmakers. Sure, Marie isn’t supposed to be held up as every lesbian, but her sexuality is central to the conceit and how she’s identified through the course of the movie.
After “High Tension” caught U.S. studios’ attention, Aja and Levasseur would go on to collaborate several more times on a pair of remakes, the glossy update to Wes Craven’s “The Hill Have Eyes” and Kim Sung-ho’s “Into the Mirror” (the Kiefer Sutherland-starring “Mirrors”). What the film is also notable for doing is ushering in an era of explicit French splatter horror featuring films like “Inside,” “Martyrs,” and “Ils.”
“High Tension” is readily available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD, so it’s very easy to seek out if you want to see it. I haven’t checked out the Blu-ray yet (despite picking up a copy months back), but the DVD from U.S. distributor Lionsgate acquitted the movie well, with plenty of the intended grain to give the movie that extra aged look.