Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, or its original 2003 title Haute Tension, attempts to make the sexual subtext of a traditional horror film into something metaphysical. With fear of inadvertently revealing the film’s “big twist”, I will describe its main character – law student Marie (Cecile de France) – as a highly imaginative Norman Bates or a hormonally-charged Dick Hickock. But Bates and Hickock worked in Psycho and In Cold Blood respectively is due to those characters’ sexual confusion/frustration existing under the surface. In the very French Tension, there is a need for this very sexuality to be flaunted on the surface and to let that take the center stage. This film’s failures is proof-positive of that filmmaking impulses conflicting with the horror genre.
Scary movies works best in the subconscious; the implied contract between the film and audience is something really horrific is what exists’ in one’s own mind. Perhaps that is why repressed Americans are so particularly effective in this genre. Classic films like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween have socio-economic and psychological themes operating right beneath. It took power tools and kitchen knives for them to flow into our reality. These newer films certainly took their cue from the real masters of American horror, Brits James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock. These guys, each with their own baskets of psychological issues and hailing from stuffier societies, knew suggestion and insinuation were more terrifying and unnerving than the obvious. Aja’s failure is taking the same elements of these films and staging a lesbian-lib abstraction. This is fine as concept but ineffective as entertainment.
Marie and Alexia (Maiwenn LeBesco), two law students, travel to Alexia’s country home in order for finals studying. Aja starts off on good footing by not only showing a somewhat bland and corn-covered French landscape that is rarely seen in foreign cinema but also creating a vast space just waiting for a blood-soaked invasion. Resentment towards her technique develops when the first sight of Alexia’s family is her little brother Tom (Marco Claudiu Pascu) in his little cowboy suit prancing around with the family’s big St. Bernard: Knowing this is a horror film, everyone anticipates the manipulative shots of these innocent types being crumpled up in a bloody mess. Mom (Oana Pellea) and Dad (Andrei Finti) also seem too good to be true…or simply to be to be axe bait. Anyway, Marie and Alexia settle in for the evening and already Marie’s attraction for Alexia is palpable. Enjoying a smoke on the family swing, she catches a glimpse of Alexia in the shower. This requires Marie’s quick departure for some “alone time”.
As she departs, she remains unaware of Le tueur’s (Phillippe Nahon) lurking presence. The audience knows: We’ve already seen his van that is so intentionally weird looking that it would not go unnoticed by Inspector Clouseau or anyone who’s seen Jeepers Creepers. The first shot of Le tueur receiving a self-induced blowjob with the aid of a severed head. Clearly, he’s insane or simply one of those Cinema Killers who do things for the purpose of outraging the audience into frenzy. (Although I’m pretty sure I spotted this guy at the Herbie: Fully Loaded screening I attended.)While Marie is scooping for pearls, Le tueur enters the house and begins to kill the family in a horrific and unmotivated fashion. Marie escapes detection that screams horror film contrivance but has a more preposterous explanation later. He then finds Alexia, ties her up, and throws her in the van. Marie, through various modes of concealment and transport, follows in pursuit with the hopes of saving Alexia. What lies in advance is a road full of hapless victims and a revelation that effectively undermines anything interesting and tense beforehand.
Based on my above-comparisons to Bates and Hickock, I have no idea if the reader can figure out what this twist is. And, frankly, I don’t really care. It’s so obvious and ridiculously “scandalous” that I hope some sort of revelation detours the film’s viewing. I am slightly perturbed by other critics who have analyzed the twist in a literal sense. How could the laws of physics allow for this? How could the film use its perspective in such an unnecessarily manipulative fashion? Well, because it’s obviously the impression of its surely confused filmmaker that a literal interpretation is meaningless. Tension’s act of making the murders an expression of sexual anger is not my protest. My protest is the same one I lodge every time a film does this towards the end of its duration. Why do this so late in the film? Obviously, Aja purported this revelation as a psychological A-bomb on the audience but then cops out by not explaining any aspect of it. I won’t detail specifics but there are lingering thoughts about the composition of certain characters and how other scenes would have really played in hindsight. All of that’s rather irrelevant to the point that Tension takes a traditional sublet of the horror genre – fear and confusion lashing out against simple and flawed society normally symbolized by the “ideal” family – and simply sucks the life out of it. The French cinema lacks the sheer chutzpah for this type of exercise. While the Italians don’t suffer from Anglo repression, Italian horror simply exaggerates the fears of its characters. All or nothing is the name of the game in scary filmmaking. Aja can’t seem to decide with Tension and takes a bloody middle ground. The only certain outcome is the film’s failure.
Side note: Lion’s Gate, the American distributor, has somewhat arbitrarily chosen to dub parts of Tension and then leave subtitles in other parts. I tend to look for patterns in decisions like this; perhaps subtitles were only used in the non-action segments so not to distract. But that does not appear to be the case. If anyone can tell me if there is a pattern, you will earn my eternal respect. Otherwise, it just looks goofy.