High Tension (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) need to study for exams so the two friends drive to the countryside to get away from distractions. Alex’ family (Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea, Marco Claudiu Pascu) is kind enough to let them stay. But on the night of their arrival, a man (Philippe Nahon) pulls over his truck to the farmhouse and rings the bell. When Alex’ father answers the door, he is struck my the stranger for no apparent reason. Then the man proceeds to go upstairs to kill the rest of the family.
Written by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, “Haute tension” lives up to its title because it does not simply settle with delivering bucket loads of blood. It milks every gruesome murder scene by experimenting with perspective, featuring well-lit close-ups, and allowing the main character, Marie, to do things that a regular person might do given that he or she is placed in a similar situation.
Marie is smart so it is easy to root for her. Already it is a step above typical slasher films where a would-be survivor shrieks like cattle while running away from a predator. As the truck driver approaches the third floor where the guest room is located, Marie is understandably panic-stricken yet she makes sensible decisions. For instance, before finding a hiding spot, she returns all her belongings to her bag, hides it, makes sure the bed is neat, and the sink is dry. So when the killer enters the room to investigate, there is less of a chance of him searching every hiding place.
I feel that the best horror movies, especially of the slasher sub-genre, are the ones that feature characters who do exactly what I would do if I were the one in trouble. Marie is not the kind of person who screams for help across the field when she knows that she is within eyesight of danger. She is the kind who tiptoes from one location to another which made my heart palpitate that much harder. With every door she opens, I held my breath; with every doorway she crosses, I released a sigh of relief. Then it repeats if she wishes to get to the next room.
De France is very good because the little ticks she injects into her character summon the necessary fear and vulnerability for us to want to be with her every step of the way. A handful of scenes are truly horrific because of the grizzly violence but one stood out to me: the bathroom scene in the gas station. The scene made me feel uncomfortable, in a good way, because most of the time, when a character begins to think that the threat is gone, it is a titanic hint that the end is near for that person. Here, there is a freshness and enthusiasm with the way the writers play with our expectations.
Marie has an attraction toward Alex. The problem is, Alex is attracted to men. Their friendship requires more detail or depth if I were to believe in the tension between them. Still, since Alex is straight and Marie is gay, I could see why Marie, in a way, wants to be a hero by saving Alex, who is eventually kidnapped by the trucker, so that she will be impressed, or thankful, or forever in debt for saving her life. The implication is, when it comes to unrequited feelings, any emotion toward the person being attracted is better than no feeling at all.
“High Tension,” directed by Alexandre Aja, is able to maintain its subject matter’s darkness while paying homage to influential slasher movies. Most pictures of its type are unable to accomplish either. Finally, there is a twist toward the end that is more unnecessary than brilliant. (I thought it was the latter after first viewing.) It works as an immediate experience but it does not hold up strongly upon critical thinking.