Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for Strong Graphic Violence
(French with English subtitles)
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Written by: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur
Starring: Cecile De France, Maiwenn, Philippe Nahon
Before films like INSIDE and MARTYRS were making waves in the horror scene, there was this little French import by the name of HIGH TENSION that caused quite a stir. This movie was getting rave reviews from many high profile horror sites, such as Bloody Disgusting and Fangoria. It also welcomed a new voice to the horror genre: Alexandre Aja (who later went on to direct the HILLS HAVE EYES remake, MIRRORS, and PIRANHA remake). Unabashedly graphic and violent beyond belief, if there’s one thing that can be praised to the heavens about HIGH TENSION, it’s that the film lives up to it’s title…and then some. There is a crucial flaw that comes near the tail end of the experience that takes the quality down significantly though.
Marie is taking a trip with her best friend, Alex, to study at Alex’s home. They travel to the isolated country house and as the two settle in for the night, a psychopath drives up to the residence in a rusty old truck and rings the doorbell. Alex’s father answers and a massacre begins. The killer systematically takes out every member of the family and leaves Alex as his prisoner, chained and gagged in the back of his truck. During all of this commotion, Marie remains hidden and makes every (failed) effort to call the police and get help. Eventually, it comes down to either hiding and letting the lunatic drive off with her friend or taking a huge risk to her well being. Making the choice, Marie arms herself with a knife and hides in the back of the truck. What unfolds is a cat-and-mouse game with extreme violence and plenty of shock value.
If it’s taken at face value, 90% of HIGH TENSION works flawlessly. The tension is indeed high and while the movie does revel in showing you the dismemberment at hand, it also unfolds like any classic chiller would. This isn’t all fast moving and quick editing. This is a deliberate exercise in building…well, tension. In this sense, the film is perfect up until a certain point (but more on that in a bit). There are plenty of scenes that have no dialogue whatsoever, it’s just a cat-and-mouse story that’s stripped down to the bare essentials. The style in which the movie is shot is absolutely breathtaking. If one were to mix gritty exploitation flick and classic thriller, you’d pretty much have HIGH TENSION in a nutshell.
The performances from the lead (Cecile De France) is enthralling as she becomes the only hope for her best friend/secret crush. When she holds her breath to keep quiet from the killer, we do the same. This is a film where you literally feel yourself being sucked into the cinematic world on display. The look of the killer himself is pretty disgusting. The little details focused on in the film also add more realism to the whole disturbing affair. These range from a footprint in a growing puddle of a victim’s blood to a shard of glass stuck in a girls leg. It’s all graphically shown in close-up and Aja refuses to shy away from anything. One would usually say that this is mere shock value, but this time they’d only be half-right, because the entire film is beautifully shot. Then something goes a bitty awry in the final 10 minutes.
HIGH TENSION has the distinction of boasting one of the single most mind-bogglingly inane twist endings of all-time. In any other movie, it would cripple the entire experience and make one feel like they’d wasted their time invested in the film. Be that as it may, it’s a true testament to just how strong and amazing HIGH TENSION is that it perseveres through this obstacle that nearly every other horror movie would have failed with. No, the ending doesn’t make a lick of sense. There are plot-holes that stick out like a sore thumb, but the experience itself is what you should be in for here. HIGH TENSION certainly delivers on its title, even though the ending is ridiculous. The film winds up being a great French horror film that lead to other extreme titles from the same country following in its wake (FRONTIER(S), INSIDE, MARTYRS). In the end, I recommend HIGH TENSION if you’re willing to overlook a dumb ending and simply want to experience some really well-crafted tension (a word I keep using, but it definitely applies to this film)!