High Tension (2003)
Director: Alexandre Aja
I don't know where I heard it, but someone once said that to review a film and discuss its twist -- or to even knowledge that there is a twist -- ruins the film for anyone who has not yet seen it. Well, too bad! I can't review High Tension without discussing the twist because it was precisely the twist that took me out of the movie. For the most part, High Tension is a tense and bloody experiment in psychological terror and suspense, but it squanders its gains with a twist ending that uses a circular saw to rip a needlessly messy hole in the plot.
Marie (Cécile De France) accompanies her friend Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) to Alex's family home in the French country. Isolated and quiet, the home will be a perfect place for them to study. The quiet is soon interrupted when a mysterious killer enters the home and begins to slaughter Alex's family. He abducts Alex in the back of his rusty metal truck, but Marie stows away. The film ramps up into a thrilling series of cat-and-mouse torments and revenge as Marie attempts to rescue and reunite with Alex.
Rating: 3/ 5 Shyamalans
IS IT SHOCKING
Like most of films coming out of the French horror renaissance, to call High Tension a bloody movie is an understatement. Modern French horror is known for pushing the limit in extreme depictions of violence but also psychological horror. To ensure the gore and blood looks its best, the film hired famed Italian special effects artist Giannetto De Rossi who worked on other European horror classics such as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Fulchi's Zombie 2. The whole film has a violent aesthetic as if the actual film print itself had been slightly stained with blood.
Carrie must have looked like this in the cab home from Prom
But High Tension is more than just a gore movie. Per its title, High Tension is incredibly suspenseful. The killer loves to taunt and play with his victims. He's a truly menacing and misogynistic force to be reckoned with. There's a great scene in a gas station where Marie is trying to get the store clerk to call for help but the clerk enters into a conversation with the killer that is just dripping with tension. Then tension gives way to violence and the clerk is dispatched with an axe to the chest. But because the killer is so spiteful that he doesn't just leave the clerk to die of the wound. He puts his boot on the clerk's back and pushes him further down onto the axe blade. Yeah. He's not messing around.
A shave and a haircut while you sleep: two bits.
IS IT SURREAL?
The only thing surreal about High Tension is the twist ending that renders the entire film a fantasy. You see, the male killer is actually......Marie. Yup, this is that hard-to-accomplish switcheroo where the hero is actually the villain. Marie slaughtered Alex's family. Marie, we learn, is completely psychotic, obsessed with Alex, and acting out a divergent personality to be close to her. Marie also killed the store clerk and kidnapped Alex, taking her to a secluded location in the woods. There was no male killer.
In order for this to have happened, however, the majority of the films events could not have happened as we saw it if they happened at all. In fact, nothing except the last few scenes can be reliably said to have happened since everything up until that point is seen from Marie's deluded perspective. All that tension in which Marie was being stalked by the killer didn't happen in the actual narrative of the story. For example, Marie is trying to hide from the killer in Alex's house. There's a great scene where we think Marie is in the bathtub behind the shower curtain. When the killer pulls back the curtain -- she's not there. Whew. She's actually under the bed. Oh, but wait -- this whole sequence is just a red herring. It never happened. Either Marie was hiding under the bed imagining the killer was looking for her, or she was in the persona of the killer searching for a victim who did not exist. Or, the whole thing could have been in her mind while she was doing something else.
Don't worry. This probably didn't happen.
This is the problem with High Tension. A lot of time and detail is spent crafting the character of the killer, Marie, and then setting them against each other in a very satisfying killer vs. survivor girl battle. The killer is full of unique character: he drives a giant meal truck and keeps on his dashboard the pictures of other women he has killed. The first time we see the truck, he's getting a blow job from a severed head that he cruelly discards. So, if the killer is and has always been Marie, where did she get the truck if she came to country house in Alex's car? Has she killed other women or are these suggestions a fantasy? Later, when the killer leaves Alex at the gas station in his truck, Alex is forced to steal a car in pursuit of him. Since she is the killer, how does this work? Does she take Alex in the truck to the woods, walk back to the gas station, steal a car, and then drive that stolen car back to the truck?
The film's Shyamalan-twist works as a momentary shock, but it makes everything we've seen suspect and potentially just a fantasy, draining the film of its tension. While this twist can be satisfying in other films such a Phantasm because we remain identified with one central character, this twist does not work in High Tension because it's handled poorly and too much like that derided cliche ending: "it was all a dream."
The experience of High Tension is a superb example of horror-tension. In this film, Aja shows his flair for horror that he later used in the remake of The Hills Have Eyes and hopefully will parlay into further success with his upcoming Piranha 3D.
The ill-conceived twist, however, throws away the narrative of the film for a cheap reveal that is far less interesting or compelling than the events that came before.