Premise: Marie and her best friend Alexis are spending their school holiday at Alexis’s family home in rural France. A deranged, mysterious killer breaks into the house, brutally murders the family and takes Alexis prisoner—but Marie manages to avoid detection, and she must be implacable, cunning and ruthless if she expects to save her friend and uncover her captor’s secret.
If, before watching High Tension, I had read a synopsis of the film, breaking it down plot point by plot point, I would not have believed that there would be any way on God’s flat Earth that it could be watchable, let alone good. I’d have skipped to the next movie in my Netflix queue, and you’d be reading my review of Who Can Kill a Child? instead. Fortunately for me, the only thing I knew about High Tension was that it was French, and that it was part of a “New Wave of French Horror” that also includes Martyrs, Them, Frontier(s), Inside and (kinda) Calvaire. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
High Tension’s script–co-written by director Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur–is so shoddy that it feels like it was hastily scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin after a night of heavy drinking. Hoary clichés, slavish devotion to slasher formula, characters behaving stupidly, plot holes, logical fallacies, and a third-act plot twist that literally caused me to pause the DVD and yell, “No! You did not just do that! Tell me you did not just do that!”—it’s all there and much, much more. Aja tries to justify the film’s flaws by adopting a gritty “throwback” style, complete with references to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Maniac, Halloween and Blue Velvet. We’ve seen this before, with stuff like If a Tree Falls and (shudder) Satan’s Playground.
Under ordinary circumstances, the script would deserve all the contempt and derision we could muster…if it weren’t for the fact that Aja manages to pull it off with aplomb. In execution, High Tension is at least three to five cuts above most films of this type. Even the score is better than usual, all brooding electronica with occasional interjections from Muse and some guy who seems to think he’s Jacques Brel instead of the usual orchestral sturm und drang and nu-metal.
Aja didn’t strike me as much of a stylist when I saw his craptacular remake of The Hills Have Eyes, but I may have to revise that assessment; he’s not brilliant, but he has potential, and there are a couple of really striking sequences here. He also paces the film exceptionally well, keeping it running at a fast enough pace that we usually don’t have time to notice how dumb it all is…and even when we do (for example, when Marie escapes the killer by hiding under the bed, or that twist…seriously, considering his reaction to The Broken, I have to believe that Brad Miska shit out his own intestines when he saw High Tension), we only have a couple of minutes before we’ve forgotten all about it. And there are a couple of genuinely (forgive me) tense moments, such as the scene at the gas station. I didn’t find it as hard to watch as Martyrs, but it’s still an intense and grueling experience.
But the real triumph here belongs to the cast. High Tension is essentially a one-hander that belongs to Belgian actress Cécile de France (yeah, I know, a Belgian actress named “de France”—I guess “Cécile de Benelux” would be too obvious), who plays Marie. Marie isn’t so much a character as she is a cardboard cutout of what Aja and Levasseur think a lesbian is like (I mean, Jeez, look at that haircut), with the words FINAL GIRL scrawled across her midsection with a Sharpie. But in de France’s hands, Marie is the sort of person you could believe really exists—okay, you’d probably need a couple drinks first, but it’s still quite an accomplishment. She’s a compelling figure, and I never stopped rooting for her, even during scenes where Aja and Levasseur apparently decided that a large, steaming pile of pig manure would serve her better than a brain would.
The other main standout in the cast is Philippe Nahon, who plays the nameless killer. He’s a hulking, menacing brute who dominates every scene he’s in through sheer force of will (and he brings the same qualities to his all-too-brief role in Calvaire). As far as “unstoppable serial killers who rarely speak” go, he’s in the top rank. In fact, I’m so impressed with the two Nahon performances I’ve seen that he’s getting his own post tag. I sincerely believe that this guy should be up there with Michael Berryman and Tony Todd.
In comparison to de France and Nahon, the third primary cast member—Maïwenn le Besco (credited only by her first name here) as Alexis—tends to get steamrolled a lot, but since that’s the requirements of the character it’s not much of a problem. And, as with de France, she’s able to invest her thinly-defined character with a certain amount of whatever it is that makes us care about characters in movies. We understand why Marie has a thing for her and we don’t spend most of the movie hoping that the killer pulls a Cannibal Ferox on her, so I guess you can call it a victory of sorts.
There are some other actors in this film, too, but I only noticed them when they got killed, so let’s assume they were good at their jobs as well.
I really, really want to give High Tension four stars…and yet, I keep returning to that damn script. Put it in the hands of anyone less capable, and it would have been one of the legendary modern bad horror movies. Or worse, an obscure nonentity, wasting away on Netflix Instant, waiting for some poor loser with a horror blog to discover it, hoping for a diamond in the rough but walking away disappointed. High Tension doesn’t deserve that fourth star, but it almost does. Tighten the story up, and it would.
Moment of Zen: Cécile de France presents: Concrete Saw Mayhem!
95 minutes; in French, with English subtitles. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Starring Cécile de France, Maïwenn Le Besco, Philippe Nahon.