Screens Heads off to Alexandre Aja

'High Tension' hangs on extravagant butchery and sexual anxiety

It begins with a bleeding, panting woman staggering through a forest. The dimly lit, hand-held, grainy images could be an outtake from The Blair Witch Project, except that immediately following the opening credits Marie (De France) explains to Alex (Le Besco) that it was all a dream. Seeking rural seclusion to study for exams, the two young women are driving to Alex's parents' farmhouse in southern France. The two best friends chatter about their lives, though Marie seems disturbed by Alex's account of a romantic relationship. Soon after the women arrive at the farmhouse late at night, Alex's father, mother, and younger brother, as well as the family dog, are slaughtered. Alex is shackled and hauled off in a truck, while Marie scrambles to rescue her friend.

Girl Interrupted: Cécile De France as Marie sets off in pursuit of her best friend, who has been kidnapped by a murderous psychopath, in the French thriller High Tension.

The original French title of High Tension - Haute Tension - is pronounced a bit like "Attention!" An elaborate exercise in creating and sustaining attention, the film grabs a viewer by the eyeballs and, until the final, flabbergasting frames, never lets go. An orgy of extravagant butchery, High Tension offers as gory a spectacle as a civilian is likely to encounter outside of a visit to an abattoir. Using razor, ax, shotgun, and saw, a lumpish, wheezing intruder sets about methodically taking the breath out of anything that breathes, except for pretty Marie, who is no doubt being saved for unspeakable debauchery. Alex's father is decapitated early in the proceedings, which include images of a severed hand and of blood splattered everywhere. The action moves from the farmhouse to a gas station to a greenhouse in the woods. We witness mayhem as Marie, desperate not to become another victim, sees it, but more than terror the effect is disgust.

This is a slasher movie, with a twist, but the film's American distributors seem to assume that slasher fans are illiterate - hence their decision to dub the (minimal) dialogue from French into English. However, the dubbing is so clumsy that it is probably more of a distraction than subtitles might have been. One can easily make the comparison, though, because after a while the French voices, inexplicably, cease being dubbed, and English subtitles flash across the bloody screen. Did the dubbing actors suddenly go on strike? Did they, too, end up losing their larynxes to a razor?

High Tension (Haute Tension)
Dir. Alexandre Aja; writ. Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur; feat. Cécile De France, Maïwenn Le Besco, Philippe Nahon (NC-17)

Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to which it offers homage, High Tension subjects its audience to an unrelenting ordeal of carnage. Director Alexandre Aja paces the events and positions the camera for maximum effect. What intensifies the outrage even more is a realization that images of havoc are ultimately deployed in service to a homophobic vision. Something happens in the final sequence that draws more from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than Halloween. Like the endings of The Usual Suspects and Identity, it forces a viewer to think again and again through everything that came before. The horror never ends.

`The film is being released in both NC-17 and R formats. As of press time, the Current was unable to confirm which version will be shown in San Antonio.`

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