High Tension (Haute Tension)

Anyone who resents the eleventh-hour tricks M. Night Shyamalan plays on the audience should probably steer clear of the notorious French slasher film Haute Tension (released in the U.S. as High Tension). For most of its running time, though, this second feature by Alexandre Aja is a taut homage to ’80s slash. The blue lighting scheme is a tip of the chapeau to Dean Cundey’s Halloween colors; the whole enterprise is a stripped-down-for-action throwback to the days of gratuitous nudity and splatter. Haute Tension is like a French art-house essay on slasher-movie clichés, and as such is good nasty fun.

Two college girls, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), are heading to Alex’s parents’ remote boonies house for a weekend of studying. Here the plot differs from old-school slash in that no boyfriends are along for the ride in order to have sex and die. Actually, the pixie-ish Marie is a lesbian, with (we gather) some unrequited feelings for Alex. But all of that takes a back seat to the narrative’s immediate threat — a hulking trucker (Philippe Nahon, from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible and I Stand Alone), who we first see in his ratty vehicle getting orally pleasured in a uniquely grotesque way (Aja must have seen Joel Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks). The killer, as he’s named in the credits, heads to the remote house and wastes no time repainting the walls in crimson. He butchers Alex’s family and kidnaps her, and Marie, who has remained in hiding, stows herself on his truck to save Alex from a certain fate of mutilation and extinction.

Haute Tension is as much a tribute to Halloween as Halloween was to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. All three are bloody-minded exercises in style, narrowing the conflict down to a battle of wills between a willowy protagonist and implacable evil. Aja leaves few stones unturned, drawing the suspense out and borrowing liberally from old classics (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) as well as new (From Dusk Till Dawn, in a scene set in a gas station). Once the events are set in motion, precious little plot gets in the way of the story. Cécile De France, who reminded me of Patricia Arquette (particularly in Arquette’s more feral, Gandolfini-pulping moments in True Romance), makes a fine smart survivor type, smart as well as brave (sometimes too brave, as when she consistently edges into rooms where the killer might still be prowling). The gruff Philippe Nahon brings his scowl and from-the-bowels-of-France voice to the killer; his casting here, to anyone who’s seen his Noé films, is so on-the-money it’s almost too obvious. I’d like to see him in a bubbly romantic comedy — perhaps something in which he isn’t a nihilistic misanthrope.

The screenplay’s lesbian aspect adds a new wrinkle to the genre’s standard I-must-rescue-my-girlfriend arc, and also a twist that some will find unpalatable — but then, Haute Tension has not been conceived as palatable on any level other than aesthetic. The film reads as though Aja wanted to make a classical slasher movie with a send-’em-out-buzzing finale that flips everything around. Unfortunately, it flips a bit too much. I won’t give anything away, but very many logical questions will occur to the post-movie viewer; the movie simply won’t withstand close scrutiny, and many viewers put off by the film’s rather graphic brutality won’t feel like revisiting the story to tie up the loose ends. For fans of the genre Aja is both working in and honoring, though, Haute Tension is worth at least a rental — much of it is finely wrought suspense wedded to some of the nastiest carnage I’ve seen since The Passion of the Christ.

Haute Tension is available on R-rated or unrated DVD. Whichever version you see — the cuts really only amount to the usual difference between lingering shots of bloodshed and not-so-lingering shots, although a decapitation scene is noticeably trimmed — Haute Tension is a gory trip down memory lane. But if you don’t dig twist endings, you might want to eject the disc after the final bout between Marie and her adversary. You won’t be missing much.

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