06 February 2011

High Tension

***** (5 stars)

Modern France isn't really known for its horror movies. Sure, Polanski turned out some creepy hits in the 70s, but since then it's been pretty hit or miss. According to Netflix, the only foreign horror comes from Italy and Asia. Thankfully, there must be something in the water over there because the rest of Europe is slowing catching the fever. My love for Scandinavian horror has been well documented, so I'm focusing on my first love in the foreign language market- The French. Martyrs, In My Skin, Malefique, Le Pacts des Loups, The Pack, Frontiers, Inside, and others are working to change that perception. Enter "High Tension" (Haute Tension), one of the best horror films I've ever seen period. The seemingly simple story takes an unexpected twist that will remain in your subconscious forever.

Friends Marie (Cécile de France, "Hereafter", "L'auberge espagnole") and Alex (Maïwenn, "The Fifth Element") escape to the family farm to focus on studying for exams. No sooner are they tucked in for the night than a crazed man enters the home and kills the whole family, taking Alex hostage. Now, it is up to Marie to save her friend before the unthinkable happens.

Writer/Director Alexandre Aja has a bit of a hit or miss resume with this, his second feature, the somewhat high point. After its success, he went on to direct "The Hills Have Eyes" remake, "Mirrors" and "Piranha". He also wrote the forgettable "P2". His strong point is certainly style and the ability to overcome budget restraints, but he needs to work on polishing his writing skills and developing projects that will push his career forward. His relationship with writing partner and art director Gregory Levasseur blurs the line between director and crew. Who was in charge of this thing?

While trying desperately not to give anything away, the biggest complaint I've heard about this film is the twist. You either love it or hate it. Personally, I thought it elevated the film past cheap gore and into the psychological realm I enjoy so much. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT (roll over to see): You must remember that the story we are originally told is from the mind of Marie. By revisiting the opening scene of her in the hospital at the end, we can see how her mental break shaped the story we saw and are left to wonder what elements are true and what was imagined. Aja hints at this himself in the bonus features when he talks of casting Philippe Nahon as the killer. How would you imagine a serial killer to look like?

The casting is impeccable. de France is one of my favorite young actresses in Europe right now. She has the ability to exude both fragility and strength, often in the same breath. Maiween is an actress I am less familiar with but who has an especially difficult scene towards the end that kept my hand clasped over my mouth the whole time. Philippe Nahon is a genius who has starred in over 150 films and TV. His resume reads like a who's who of French cinema. He has worked with everyone! Check him out in "I Stand Alone", "Le Pacts des Loups", and "Calvaire". He plays the killer very close to the chest, with holding any sings of motivation  or insanity. Instead, he is the face of death only- solid, stoic, fucking creepy!

Depending on your tolerance level, "High Tension" will either scare the bejeezus out of you or simple amuse you. My best friend warned that she still has nightmares over the movie and found it difficult to get to sleep after seeing it. Call me intrigued! Unfortunately, I did not have that reaction. Truth be told, this movie served as a palette cleanser after I watched a documentary about animal rights. That was far more disturbing! Still, I appreciated the lack of pretense this movie offered. There was no long story drawn out before the real horror begins. Our heroine Marie is also a pretty smart cookie. Unlike other women in horror films, she doesn't fall down a lot, she doesn't cry in the corner, she doesn't run away. She is smart and methodical. In the moments after the killer has broken in, I was impressed to see how she handled herself and thought,  "That's what I would do!".

The movie is to be seen to be believed, and it should be seen by everyone with the stomach for it!


  1. Great review of one of my favorite horror films from my favorite country for foreign cinema! Personally, I have always liked the twist ending; not so much because it's clever but because it's memorable. This is the only thing I've seen Cecille de France in, but I can't wait to check her out in the MESRINE films alongside Vincent Cassell. As far as Aja, it's a shame that the brilliance he showed with this film has been tainted by his later works. It seems that directors of the more popular French horror films either disappear of fail to live up to the film that put them on the map with their subsequent works. Aja, Pascal Laugier, Christoph Gants, and the dudes who made INSIDE are examples.

  2. I couldn't agree more. I want to blame the Hollywood system, but these guys agreed to it! Mathieu Kassovitz is my favorite and he's just let me down. He needs to go back to Europe and make better movies. I think instead I'm just over the generic horror, snooze fests we keep pumping out. I mean, do we really need another "Final Destination" movie? They totally taint the brilliance that was the original.

    I am also excited about "Mesrine" but I need to plan it for when I have a full day to devote to watching it in it's entirety. de France is really good in "L'auberge espagnole" (a movie I just love and also stars Roman Duris whom I adore) and "Avenue Montaigne"; though she hasn't done more horror.

  3. Nice Review. A wonderful horror movie which have a twisted climax. Here is my review for the same movie 'High Tension' - http://moviescrunch.com/high-tension-movie-review-2005 Cheers :)