Haute Tension (2003) — If you want blood, you got it

“I’ll never let anyone come between us again.”

Kyle’s rating: Keeping in mind I’m a sicko, this is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen

Kyle’s review: Okay. Maybe you’ve heard of Haute Tension (also known as Switchblade Romance and High Tension) before, but probably only if you have you’re a total horror film freak like me who reads Fangoria and pays attention to the major horror film news sites, so good job! If this is your first exposure ever to this film, well, congratulations. You’ve managed to avoid the hype.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of hype out there about this film. There’s also a lot of controversy. Hmm, reviewing this film is going to be complex, because I don’t want to give too much anyway but I also would like to prepare you to fully enjoy Haute Tension. So I think I’ll give you a chance to drop out at the end of every paragraph; that way it’s up to you how close you want to get to this movie, yeah? Okay, here’s the first elimination: If you can’t handle a horror movie where there is a ton of the red stuff splattered everywhere, where people get slaughtered mercilessly and without cut scenes or jump music to soften the blow, and where a mouth-breathing killer receives oral sex from a woman’s severed head, Haute Tension is not for you. Thanks for reading thus far, but I’ll see you in line for Spider-Man 2 or the next Disney movie, alright?

If you’re still here, you may not be as sick and twisted as me but you’re willing to argue about it. Haute Tension may be for you. If you’ve read Dean Koontz’s Intensity, you have some idea of what Haute Tension is all about. Two college girls, who may or may not be roommates (the movie is ultra-streamlined so we only get the essentials, but you won’t mind), are driving through the countryside. Oh, mind you, Haute Tension is a French horror film, so (at the moment) you can only find it with English subtitles.

So I should have said: two French college girls, Alex (Maďwenn Le Besco) and Marie (Cécile De France), are driving through a French countryside to spend the weekend with Alex’s family in their remote farmhouse. Alex often studies there because it’s so isolated and quiet, so even though Marie predicts she’ll get bored she recognizes they’ll get a lot of studying done. At least, that was the plan.

Too bad for them that within about an hour or so or arriving, a murderous pervert (Philippe Nahon), the one seen earlier lewdly abusing a severed head, drives up in his Jeepers Creepers-esque truck to murder Alex’s family and kidnap Alex for what could only be the absolute worst of intentions. Marie miraculously managed to evade the murderer in his methodical sweep of the house, and she grabbed a knife in an effort to save Alex. But then Marie gets locked up with Alex in the back of the dude’s truck as he drives off to who-knows-where. The murderer doesn’t Marie is back there with Alex, but Marie is barefoot, tired, and seemingly out-of-her-league against a guy who can’t really be labeled “madman” because this guy is one smart and tough hombre. Sounds like a female Die Hard without guns, eh?

Anyway, if Marie somehow runs off to find help she risks the guy driving off with Alex to parts unknown; if Marie sticks around to protect Alex she’ll probably just get discovered and slaughtered. It’s cat-and-mouse hijinks, but unlike the Tom-and-Jerry cartoons this is one cool, cruel cat who knows more than one way to catch a mouse, and the mouse is still traumatized from what she saw back in the house, though she’s quickly learning how to cover her tracks and play to the shadows. High tension indeed. If that description sounds boring to you, or you’re such a Koontz fan you’ll be scoffing and stroking your first edition of Intensity through the whole movie, save yourself from high blood pressure and skip Haute Tension, alright?

If you’re still here, you’re quite aware that this setup is super-awesome in terms of the tension being spiked to ludicrous levels, but you’re concerned that the participants might be a weak link in spoiling your slasher fun. Let me reassure you: Haute Tension delivers a stellar cast and a smart story to showcase the strengths and intelligence of its characters. It starts with the acting, and it’s all good. Le Besco and De France have a great chemistry as college pals, and we understand De France’s anguish at knowing her friend’s family was murdered and now her friend is in mortal danger.

Meanwhile, Nahon manages to pull of a kind of Michael Myers intensity (must be the jumpsuit) while retaining a sick sense of humor and willingness to observe, adapt, and overcome. In most horror movies, especially slasher ones, the heroine/hero can hide just out of plain sight from the killer, because the killer is too stupid/block-headed/undead to notice. In Haute Tension, Marie has to worry about reflections, creaking footsteps, and the reaction of other people to her presence, because Nahon’s killer is going to notice any and all of those and use them to track her if he becomes aware of her presence. If you only like slasher movies that are so dumb or unbelievable you can just laugh at them, Haute Tension is a bit too real for you. Stick with Jason and Freddy, please.

I’ve read Intensity and I’ve seen a ton of horror films. So I speak with some authority when I say that not only is Haute Tension’s basic story perfectly streamlined and pumped-up for us jaded horror fans’ pleasure, but that the look of the film is absolutely gorgeous. I’m going to either memorize the subtitles or dig out my year of French notes from junior high soon, so that I can watch Haute Tension and never avert my eyes from the screen for any reason. The detailing, the blood splatters, the shadows, the settings… everything is perfect for this film.

You can probably imagine a good house interior to film a chase in, what a truck designed to hold a kidnap victim would look like, how to shoot a gas station mini-mart so that it’s full of hiding places. Well, take your imagination and set it aside for now, because Haute Tension delivers everything you need and it does it incredibly well. From Alex’s family home to that dreaded truck to a deserted gas station to a lonely road in the woods to an ominous greenhouse full of torn, billowing plastic sheets, Haute Tension has got a clear vision of what the ultimate slasher film’s settings would look like. I’m still blown away at the visuals of this film. It’s not just great set pieces: it’s director Alexandre Aja’s eye for instilling fear and dread with camera angles, and it’s the work of the cast (especially De France) in communicating their emotions and physical states with posture, facial expressions, and eyes.

Most of the back half of the film doesn’t need subtitles because things get primal: chase, evasion, bloody conflict. There are cries of pain and screams of emotion, and that’s more chilling and engrossing than any “hip” dialogue American horror throws our way, especially with the gruesome make-up effects that get paraded in front of us. Good work, France! If you’re somewhat psyched about Haute Tension now, thanks for reading and go see it somehow. I want you to enjoy it freely, without too much clouding your enjoyment. Anything else I say will unalterably color your perceptions and opinions of the film even before you watch it, so unless you don’t like surprises take a hike! I’m begging you! At least skip the next paragraph and read only my pithy concluding remarks!

So… you don’t want to see Haute Tension cold, you want to know what’s coming and what’s so controversial about it, eh? Well, I won’t give too much away, though even reading my careful review between the lines you can figure enough out to make a reasonable guess at things. And a lot of the other reviews online are more willing to delve into spoilers so they can discuss the overall impact of the film, so if you want to know exactly what’s going on, try a Google search. But if you just want a slight inkling of what awaits, let me discuss my way around it and leave it up to you whether you want to put two and two together. Besides Intensity, there is another American piece of entertainment that provides a good point of comparison to Haute Tension, and that is the film Identity.

If you’ve seen Identity, the wheels are already turning; if not, know that Identity and Haute Tension are both horror films with strong slasher undertones and both feature HUGE twists that, once experienced, force everything that has come before to be viewed in a whole new light and could easily derail your viewing experience because now you’re trying to remember the first hour or so of the movie and trying to reconcile what you thought you saw with what the film is telling you. Identity’s twist was somewhat obvious; I was able to figure it out just from seeing the trailer and putting the pieces together while we were watching it in the theater for Amber’s birthday.

Now, I have to admit that I knew what the twist was in Haute Tension before I watched it, so I was able to enjoy it as a fresh film and I could watch for clues and telltales signs that were too hidden or subtle on a cold first viewing. Knowing what was coming, I was prepared and I didn’t have to ride out the shock, so I really enjoyed the movie as a streamlined slasher that was absolutely gorgeous to look at with a bit of mind-game tossed in towards the end.

Some people have complained that they finished the film with anger in their hearts and venom in their veins, wishing that the pure and nearly-perfect 85% slasher film that had been enjoying hadn’t been tainted and in some cases ruined by 15% of plot twist. Others didn’t mind it, and believe the film will hold up on repeat viewings (it will) and that the relentless purity of the slasher stuff is greater than the effect of the plot twist, so that Haute Tension is still an awesome addition to the genre (true!). I believe that Haute Tension will be super-rewarding to repeat viewings, and that its visual beauty, powerful acting, and unbelievable tension makes it one of the best slasher films I’ve ever seen. Everything is in the eye of the beholder, anyway: once your eye tells you to stop the movie, stop it at what seems like a good stopping place about 16 minutes from the true ending, and call it good! Whatever floats your boat!

Yep, Haute Tension is going to mess up your world for a bit, but you’ll be so engrossed in that world on the screen you won’t care. The look, the feel, the sound, the feelings it inflicts onto you the viewer: everything about Haute Tension is incredibly impressive. The French girls are hot and vulnerable, the scary murderer seems normal enough to walk around free yet more than capable of taking down anyone he wants to, with any kind of sharp implement. And those settings and camera angles are gorgeous, like the perfect horror comic book plastered on the big screen. I highly recommend Haute Tension, but you need to promise to see it with an open mind and a willingness to allow the story to go where it wants to. No plot twist can change the power of the horrible murders and the intensity of the situations these girls are forced into, so once the end credits roll don’t be too quick to say the movie sucked. Movies are supposed to provoke a response, and Haute Tension will affect more than your desire to upchuck. And that’s true tension, baby!

Dida notice?

  • When French chicks smoke, it’s not really a dangerous lifestyle choice, it’s somehow a sexy one!
  • The killer has obviously seen a slasher movie or two before and he took some notes on how to take care of the heroines that pop up and ruin a mass murderer’s spree.
  • In an American film, the music would manipulate you into jumping and into false scares. Here, the music underlies everything, and the reason you just jumped up and/or soiled yourself is because the movie is scary!

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