Lionsgate // 2003 // 111 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 5th, 2010
Hearts will bleed.
High Tension (a.k.a. Haute Tension, a.k.a. Switchblade Romance) got a bit shafted, at least in America. It was shot in 2003, before Saw brought back gore to the mainstream and before the better "splat pack" films like The Devil's Rejects and Hostel grossed audiences out. Sadly, though, the film didn't see wide release in the States until 2005, and this time lag allowed expectations to run much too high while also giving the film the impression of jumping on the bandwagon. This lead to a rabid "love it or hate it" attitude in the horror community. Unlike other so-called "splat pack" films, the low-budget High Tension didn't rocket to the top of the weekend charts, earning less than four million dollars in U.S. release. DVD was a little kinder to the film, and an unrated special edition was well received by horror fans. That's basically what's been ported over here in this Blu-ray release, but it's going to be tough for fans to shell out the extra money for a high-def upgrade of such a low-budget film.
High Tension follows two French college students, Marie (Cécile De France, Around the World in 80 Days) and Alexia (Maïwenn Le Besco, The Fifth Element), as they head to Alex's family farm to get away from school. There they are beset by a nasty killer who slaughter's Alex's family before taking her hostage. Marie must hunt this killer to rescue Alex.
High Tension is one of those delicate movies that can easily be ruined by high expectations or too much knowledge of the plot. To that end, I want to say two things. First, that High Tension is absolutely a throwback to those grisly low budget horror films of the '70s and '80s. The film happens in a world where Scream isn't welcome, and neither is PG-13 "horror." This is a go-for-the-throat, full-bore horror flick that values a fast pace, lots of gore, and a creepy killer. Yes there's a bit more to it (Luc Besson was consulted on the script, after all), but for most of its lean-feeling 111 minutes, the film revels in old-school, gore-soaked theatrics.
Second, I want to say that I really enjoyed the film. I first saw it in a cheap second-run theater will no foreknowledge of the plot, and I was hooked from the beginning. Even if the ending isn't to everyone's liking, I loved getting there. No, High Tension didn't herald the arrival of the savior of horror (as some people seemed to think), but it did announce the arrival of a filmmaker with deep respect for the horror canon and a willingness to spread the gore and violence around. For that reason, High Tension is a film I recommend as an interesting visual experience and as an historical curiosity that helped jump-start the move to hard-R horror in the twenty-first century.
High Tension comes to Blu-ray as a pretty direct port of the previous unrated DVD, and it's an odd beast. The film was shot for almost no money by Hollywood standards, and yet achieved a pretty distinct look that really added atmosphere to the film's relentless plot. However, that look is hardly reference quality. There's a kind of yellowish cast to much of the film, and it doesn't shy away from the grain in the many darker scenes. These details are all rendered very effectively in this AVC encoded transfer, but it won't push the limits of anyone's television. On the other hand, the 7.1 DTS-HD track just might. The film's sound design is quite beautiful, with loads of atmospherics to add to the gore. They come through quite clearly with this track, and the French dialogue is quite audible. The subtitles seem to match the English dub rather than strictly represent the French audio, but I think the meaning comes through pretty clearly.
Extras are pretty extensive, and all available on the DVD. They include both the French director's cut and the English dub. There's a decent commentary with director Alexandre Aja and his co-writer Grégory Levasseur, along with commentary on selected scenes with Aja and star De France. We also get three featurettes that cover the film's production, its cinematic techniques, and makeup artist Giannetto de Rossi.
On the negative side, High Tension is guilty of some of the same crimes as its cinematic forbearers. Having the killer show up just as the film's heroine is indulging in some self-pleasure seems a cheap move, and as much fun as the film can be, there's not much new about it. This is probably why it will end up at the edge of the great horror film canon rather than in the center. Also, the film's been out almost ten years now. Aja has had some success with his The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha remakes, so perhaps it's high time for a retrospective commentary, or something of that nature.
When the history of the first decade of this century is written, High Tension will deserve a spot amongst the decade's best horror films for sheer relentlessness if not for subtlety. Those who pine for the glory days of low-budget gorefests should seek this film out, while this Blu-ray disc gives fans a great excuse to revisit what is still Alexandre Aja's best film.
It doesn't matter what it's called, High Tension is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Unrated