A slasher flick doesn’t need to be complicated. It needs to establish an eerie mood, deliver a bold killer and some likable victims, follow up with some tight editing and an atmospheric score and in the bargain scare the Hell out of people. It’s such a simple formula that it astounds me the majority of slashers miss the mark, often by a wide margin. Not HIGH TENSION. I don’t often make bold proclamations, but this flick deserves one, so here goes. Pound for pound, HIGH TENSION may be the best slasher film since John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. It’s that effective, which is why so many people hate it.
If the final sentence of that intro makes no sense, you’ve never seen HIGH TENSION. I usually use my second paragraph in a review for the basic plot summary of the opening act. But Mom told me always to get the bad stuff out of the way first, so I have to address this here. If you are a slasher fan, or even just a fan of great horror flicks, you are likely to love the first 70 minutes of HIGH TENSION. At that point, you’ll come across The Twist, which may come across to you as so offensively out of line with the earlier part of the film, you’ll forget all that love you had just a minute ago and you’ll turn on HIGH TENSION just as its killer turned on a family out on the farm. You’ll hate the entire film for the shocking twist. And you’ll be doing yourself a great disservice. Because you’ll be cutting out all the stuff that makes HIGH TENSION such a great thriller.
I’m being vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you in case you have an open mind and want to see how great horror cinema is made. It starts with the simple conceit of Marie and Alex, two college girls heading out to Alex’s family farm for a weekend of studying. Marie has just woken up from a weird dream, in which she was chasing herself through the woods with a weapon. As they drive, we’re introduced to a work truck, an ominous vehicle for sure. In the driver’s seat, The Killer is defiling a corpse for his own sexual pleasure. Marie and Alex arrive for the night, and as everyone settles in, The Killer arrives to annihilate the family, as Marie tries to stop him dead in his tracks.
There’s plenty of great stuff here. The script by director Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur is a masterwork in how to develop a thriller. Marie and Alex are attractive girls, on an innocent trip to see family on an isolated farm. The setup is picture perfect for a slasher, with the nubile females and the parents and kid brother isolated by acres and acres of corn, and cut off from safety within the house. Once The Killer arrives, the slayings are brutal. There’s some fabulous gore provided by frequent Fulci collaborator Giannetto De Rossi, that outdoes his output in the Italian cycle. The score by François Eudes is low and ominous, informing the audience of the terror throughout. Aja uses the camera brilliantly, panning out sometimes to leave me guessing what’s hiding in the shadows.
Then there’s The Killer. As portrayed by Philippe Nahon, he’s stone cold heartless, a ruthless killing machine who keeps pictures of all his prize female victims on the visor of his truck. He’s nameless and has no established past, a blank slate, which somehow makes him creepier. Nahon is so great in the part that he’s just as menacing trying on sunglasses in a gas station as he is wiping his bloodied straight razor on the leg of his trousers. He’s also great because he’s worlds away from all the corny slashers in American films. He’s not wearing a hockey mask, or horribly scarred. He’s a normal looking guy, who’s terrifying because he’s devoid of emotion, and that registers with me.
Those are all key elements to why people find the first 70 minutes of HIGH TENSION so powerful, but the film’s greatest asset is Cécile De France as Marie. She’s smitten with Alex, which is especially obvious after she watches her friend showering, and then plays with herself with her headphones on. de France plays the low key sexual tension perfectly, as many people her age like to experiment. When the killer breaks in (while she’s masturbating, a perfect coalescence of the sex and death trope so familiar in slashers), Marie goes straight to terror, exemplified as she views a slaying through the blinds of a closet door, unable to do anything about it. It’s when The Killer abducts Alex that Marie shines best. Instead of succumbing to fear, Marie goes proactive and tries to save Alex. This leads to a taut scene in the gas station, a car chase, and a final confrontation that is among the best I’ve ever seen in film. De France is at her best when Marie works against her own fears as she plays a chess match with The Killer, who is always two steps ahead of her. She’s a slight woman, but she doesn’t let that work against Marie in a final fight that involves plastic wrap, a large stone and a wooden post wrapped in barbed wire. She steps up and becomes just as brutish as her adversary. To act through the different stages her character goes through, and be convincing in each stage, is a credit to just how talented a young actress she is. I can’t get over just how great she is in HIGH TENSION, and I’m shocked she didn’t become a big star Stateside, the way Noomi Rapace or Jamie Lee Curtis did.
And then, when all is said and done, and it looks like Marie and Alex will win out, there’s that Shocking Twist. I went back and watched the flick a second time after my most recent viewing, trying to sort out how it would make any sense. There are some hints at the beginning in the way of a chained, sutured woman and that dream Marie has in the car, but the logistics of it don’t add up at all. If they’d only panned out a little better, especially the car chase paradox, I believe people would love this film for just how artistically made it is, for its raw power as a slasher matched with its terrorizing technique Instead, I watched two film reviews on Youtube back-to-back in which the reviewer straight out stated “I hate this movie.” This, right before launching into praise about the first 70 minutes. It astounds me that a movie that’s not afraid to slaughter a dog and a kid isn’t reviled for those killings, but for its ending. One of the shames is, after the reveal there’s one more intense chase scene that involves a concrete circular saw! When a 14” saw blade made to cut its way through concrete hits a human body, it’s devastating. But the majority of horror fans will throw that out, as well as the rest of the flick, because of the reveal. They’re missing some great stuff, because while watching the film, they’ve also missed out on an unreliable narrator.
Horror Movie Relocation Program: Here’s something that may be even more shocking than the Shock Ending. In England, HIGH TENSION is inexplicably titled SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE. What the Hell does that even mean?
Here’s where my two degrees in English come in handy. Watch the first few minutes and listen closely as a character says, “Is it recording?” Everything you see that follows is not an actual set of events, but how those events are told by an insane person. Insanity makes that person an unreliable source, and so we, the viewers, can’t trust what we’re seeing. If the viewers don’t catch that, they have every reason to hate the twist. And even I have to be honest, there’s still a slew of paradoxical stuff that doesn’t hold up. But the unreliable narrator makes it a lot easier for me to swallow.
It’s interesting to me that I’m reviewing HIGH TENSION just a few weeks after I reviewed FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. No reviewer should ever tell you to chuck the first 14 minutes of a movie, but I did just that with that review. Cutting out those minutes gives me a compact thriller that is my favorite of the Voorhees brood of flicks. So I have no shame in telling you to disregard the twist in HIGH TENSION. Don’t let it make you hate what may be the greatest slasher since HALLOWEEN. Stop it right after it looks like Marie and Alex are safe in the back of the truck, or if you want another intense attack scene with a circular saw, shut it off right after the crowbar comes into play. Then follow it by starting FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 at the 14 minute mark. Don’t throw the bloody out with the bathwater.
If I had asked director Alexandre Aja in his debut to make a slasher flick that hit all the key elements of the subgenre and was genuinely terrifying, and then he went off and made HIGH TENSION, he’d have succeeded. If I’d have asked him to deliver what may be the best slasher since HALLOWEEN, as impossible a task as that would seem, he’d have succeeded once more. I never would have asked him to piss off hordes of horror fans, but he did that anyway. HIGH TENSION is a great film, and it’s a shame so many hateit for that because of its ending. That twist ending can ruin the film for them all they want, but it won’t ruin it for me.