Lionsgate // 2003 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // October 11th, 2005
Hearts will bleed.
High Tension, the French fright film that made a splash in the horror community has arrived on DVD. It's got blood, guts, decapitations, power equipment, and a gigantic twist at the end, but is it groundbreaking horror or another genre-clone?
Marie (Cecile De France) and Alexia (Maiwenn), two close college pals, head off to Alexia's parents' home, a farmhouse tucked away deep in acres of cornfields. They hope to steal away some quiet time to bone up on their tests.
Meanwhile, as they roll up to the house in the dead of night, a mysterious stranger in a sinister-looking truck is preparing plans of his own. Just as the girls climb into bed, the doorbell rings. Alexia's father checks it out, is surprised to see a strange man at the door wielding a scalpel, and the nightmare begins.
Marie finds herself enveloped in a bloodbath. As she tries to hide from the marauding killer, she hears the screams of mayhem echoing from downstairs. When she finally goes to investigate, she finds a lone survivor: Alexia, bound a gagged in chains. But before she can rescue her friend, the killer returns and hauls her, kicking and screaming to his truck, his intentions unclear but undeniably sinister. Marie manages to stow away and must now, in one blood-soaked night, figure a way to find help and spring her friend from the clutches of a maniac.
This is kind of a complicated review to write. While I largely enjoyed High Tension, I still came away slightly disappointed. There is so much working for Alexandre Aja's film, and in many, many ways High Tension is further evidence of how much ground Hollywood has to make up in the horror genre.
High Tension is a genuinely terrifying film...for the first hour or so. Then it switches gears and becomes a survival thriller, but more on that in a bit. For the majority of its runtime, the film delivers the suspense. Aja sets up the atmosphere of dread early on with a profoundly demented first peek at the villain.
And when the slaughter begins at the farmhouse, things really get nuts. The fear is tactile, and the way the scenes are shot worked marvelously in sucking me into the on-screen happenings.
If I had to point to one element of the film that worked so well it is the sound. High Tension is as aural a movie as I've seen, depending heavily on the sound effects; this is a flick that scares you from your ears, inward.
Even now as I write this review, I am haunted less by the gore (and there is plenty) and more by the squeaks of the killer's shoes on the floor, or his labored breathing as he walks up the stairs, or the dull sound his bloodied scalpel makes when he wipes it off on his overalls.
I would go so far as to say that High Tension is one of the finest examples of a sound use for any film I've seen, and hearing it in digital surround makes it that much more absorbing.
This kick-ass sound is bolstered by some horrifying imagery. The kills in this film are graphic and brutal and messy. In one of the supplemental interviews included on this disc, Aja claims that his movie isn't that bloody. Right. Compared to some of the "horror" that Hollywood has churned out recently, High Tension is gorier than a marathon of those Learning Channel surgery shows.
The last filmmaking element I wanted to note was the pacing. Aja takes his sweet time setting up his suspense sequences, and is not afraid to draw out shots to squeeze as much edge-of-your-seat-riding as possible. Two stand-out scenes include the killer searching Marie's bedroom for her, while she cowers under the bed, and a sweet segment where Marie hides out in a bathroom stall in the biggest restroom ever, and the killer slowly moves from stall to stall, opening the door, hefting his sinew-drenched axe. Again, all aided by great sound-work -- the short gasping huffs of Marie, the step step step of the killer's boots on the tile floor that diabolical mouth-breathing.
So it's a damn scary movie for the first hour. Then the film changes tone, before eventually unveiling a gigantic plot twist. The tone change I was down with; it acted like a release from the relentless suspense created in the prior hour, and actually was quite exciting. But when that twist hits, man, things get real goofy.
My initial reaction was "Okay, this is pretty cool," but after the film ended and I had a few minutes to think about it, a lot of the things that happened prior didn't add up. Sure without the twist, High Tension would be much simpler film, but in my opinion, that's when it was working the best. As another spin on the tired slasher picture, that first hour scared the Cool Whip out of me. The twist made it more of a gimmick film, and while it was kind of cool in the moment, the residual effect is one of disillusionment.
So would I recommend this film? For horror fans, absolutely. Some people might have a different reaction to the endgame and might really dig it. For my nickel, I can see why Aja put it in, but at the end of the day I think the film would have been better served without it.
Lions Gate has put together a really nice presentation for this film. The sound and picture quality are rock solid, with a sharp anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and an aggressive 5.1 mix (see above). Just be warned: the English language track feature some hackneyed dubbing.
A healthy shipment of extras accompanies the feature. Alexandre Aja and lays down two commentary tracks, one a feature-length with co-writer Gregory Levasseur, the other for selected scenes with Cecile De France. Aja is especially eager to share his thoughts on horror and genre filmmaking on a budget (not to mention taking a swipe or two at Hollywood).
Two featurettes, "Haute Horror: Making of High Tension" and "Building Tension," offer in-depth perspective behind-the-scenes; the former speaks to the machinations that went into bringing the film to life, the latter focuses on the specific stylistic choices the director made to create suspense. Lastly, "Gianetto De Rossi: The Truth, the Madness and the Magic" looks at the make-up effects for the film.
A nice package, through and through.
High Tension is not above slipping into stupid horror-film conventions. It's unfortunate, but a staple of the genre I believe -- defying physics and common sense. So, a few things I learned from High Tension:
1. Girls that weigh less than 100 pounds can wield gigantic power saws with
2. The human spine is very, very fragile.
3. Cars in France won't start after the brakes have been applied.
4. Gas station convenience stores stock axes.
Despite its shortcomings, and my relative unease with the gimmick plot twist, High Tension is still one of the messiest, thrilling, and all-out terrifying horror flicks I've seen in a while.
Not guilty. It's official: the French are f***ed up.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Introduction by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur
* Directors' Commentary
* Selected Scenes Commentary with Alexandre Aja and Cecile De France
* "Haute Horror -- The Making of High Tension"
* "Building Tension"
* "Giannetto De Rossi: The Truth, The Madness and the Magic"