Haute Tension

By Kim Hollis

April 1, 2004

French product placement alert!

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Recently, the French film Haute Tension (renamed High Tension for its North American release) has been given the dreaded NC-17 rating. And God help me, I have no idea why.

Haute Tension (which actually translates as High Voltage in its native language) is certainly suspense-filled and contains a lion's share of bloody gore, but it's nothing we haven't seen before in R-rated films like Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Cabin Fever. The film is unsettling for the first hour and 15 minutes, but the ending essentially negates any feelings of unease one might have had.

The film takes place in a lush French countryside, with a creepy cornfield, an isolated home and an empty gas station as its primary locales. A college student named Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) is bringing her friend Marie (Cécile De France) to her family's remote homestead so that they can focus on studying for final exams. Alex quickly introduces Marie to her parents and adorable younger brother before the entire group turns in for the evening. It is here where we learn that Marie might have some unrequited feelings for her female friend.

But we don't dwell on that too long, because the bloodletting begins in fairly short order. Hearing a knock on the door, Alex's father goes to answer, and is immediately stabbed. If that's not bad enough, he's also subjected to various other bodily injuries before finally being decapitated by a large, shadowy figure. Before too long, we're introduced to this killer, known as "Le Tueur" (which literally translates to "the murderer"). As portrayed by Philippe Nahon, there hasn't been a much creepier character since Pinhead, the Tall Man, Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. In fact, if anything, he's even more sinister because he seemingly has no logical reason for pursuing the family in such a deliberate, systematic manner.

Once Le Tueur makes his first appearance, Haute Tension moves along at a pretty fair clip and a constant sense of apprehension pervades. Thanks to an ingenious use of music, sound effects and eerie complete silence, the audience is made to feel the exact same terror that Marie feels as she experiences the family's murder and her best friend's kidnapping from a very lonely perspective. Additionally, director Alexandre Aja makes the most of several long, drawn-out shots to maintain a sense of panic and suspense.

Most of all, though, Haute Tension is all about the gore. The viewer spends the edgy minutes between killings knowing that more blood is sure to be on the way, and Aja certainly delivers. It's not necessarily so gory as, say, Evil Dead was in its time (a film that also wound up with an NC-17 several years after its initial release), but the disturbing nature with which the crimes are carried out are definitely enough to make one squeamish. Additionally, the director at times chooses to use sound rather than visuals to deliver the gore -- a squish here, a thud there. It's an effective little trick that makes the murderer's actions seem even ickier.

Unfortunately, the film has a twist ending that makes absolutely no sense, which totally detracts from the overall picture. All of the cleverness that went into building the terror is totally nullified. Even worse than the fact that this ending simply doesn't work when taken in full consideration with other plot points that occur in the film is that it's not even very good or for that matter, surprising. The surprise is hinted at in the movie's opening scene, and then again when the killings begin. I knew that there was a "big shock ending" going in, so perhaps I was looking for it; nonetheless, had it been logical and entertaining, I wouldn't have minded.

In the end, Haute Tension is much better in theory than in, ahem, the execution. The notion of a killer with no remorse and no reason is indeed terrifying, but to dilute the underlying dread with a few cheap tricks at the end denigrates the entire movie. I do recommend the film for hardcore slasher fans, but it's definitely not for casual viewers of the horror genre.

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