The gruesome slasher film “Haute Tension” (now being released in the States under the title “High Tension”) is often unpleasant and difficult to watch — an assessment some will view as a victory, I’m sure. It is not the buckets of blood that bother me, for I am a fan of horror films, be they cheesy or legitimately frightening. It is, rather, the torture, the terror and the pure ugliness that permeate several chunks of the film that put me off.
Admirably, the film forsakes needless exposition and introduces us to two college girls, Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) and Marie (Cecile De France). They have embarked on a weekend of studying out at Alex’s family’s farm in the country, so far removed from the city that the people who live there are not called “locals,” but “natives.”
Through curiously placed music and sound effects, we are given the impression that there is something sinister about Alex’s parents (Andrei Finti and Oana Pellea). This is either an intentional red herring from director Alexandre Aja (who co-wrote with Gregory Levasseur), or else a mistake. At any rate, the family’s OK. It’s a psychotic maniac (Philippe Nahon) who shows up and begins murdering everyone who is the problem.
Marie manages to evade him, but he captures Alex, chains her up, and tosses her in the back of his van. Marie stows away and is able to accompany her friend as the maniac whisks them off to parts unknown to do goodness-knows-what.
I will give Aja this: The film has atmosphere to spare. Shot almost entirely at night, it has a bleakness that is truly unsettling. In addition, the killer, who is large in stature, is usually photographed from behind or from the waist down, giving him more of a monstrous, unknown quality than if we were to sit down and have tea with him, like a lot of bad movies have us do with their villains.
But in the lingo of horror films, what could be more formulaic than nubile girls being pursued by an unkillable maniac with remarkable foresight in a remote country cottage? To prevent the movie becoming nothing more than a film-school genre exercise, Aja and Levasseur have given it a twist in its final moments — a twist that, alas, DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE. Good twists make you say, as you re-think the film, “Ah, I can see how all the signs were there, and I just didn’t see them.” Bad twists, like this one, make you say, as you re-think the film, “What the F? That doesn’t work.” A few previously unexplained details do make sense once everything is revealed; unfortunately, about a thousand other details that used to make sense no longer do. The twist ruins the film, and the film wasn’t that solid to begin with.
Though omitting unnecessary exposition was wise in some ways, the byproduct of doing so is that we barely have time to know these people, much less like them, before the trouble begins. The movie is certainly tense, but only from a gut-reaction standpoint. Emotionally, psychologically, there’s nothing. I feel about Alex, Marie and the family the way I feel about video game characters. I want them to escape from harm simply because that is their function. If they die, well, I’ll just hit “reset” and start over again.
C- (1 hr., 29 min.; in French with subtitles; )