High Tension (France, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I first saw High Tension at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival, I wrote the following: " [High Tension] has virtually no chance of finding a North American distributor. After all, what's the market for slasher films with subtitles?" Imagine my surprise to hear that Lions Gate Films had picked up the North American rights and were determined to release the film unedited (which garnered an NC-17 rating) and subtitled. Fast-forward 18 moths. Apparently, more financial concerns have cause Lions Gate to take a step back. The version of High Tension that is finally getting a United States release has been slightly trimmed (to get an R rating) and dubbed into English. The dubbing isn't as big an issue as it might be in another movie. There's not a lot of dialogue in High Tension, so the dubbing offers only a minimal distraction. For the most part, the characters are trying to be quiet, not engaging in long or meaningful conversations. The main reason to see this movie has nothing to do with what the characters say, but with their horrific descent into the macabre.

Despite not containing a moment of story-based originality, High Tension is arguably the best horror movie since The Blair Witch Project (and that covers a lot of ground). This is what Jeepers Creepers could have been had it maintained the taut pace of its first half. High Tension is a nerve-jangler that keeps the level of suspense high, throws in moments of black comedy, and turns everything on its ear in the final ten minutes. The ending is a source of endless debate among fans of the film. It's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, with plenty of viewers falling on either side of the issue.

The story is pretty simple: two girls, Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (the single-monikered Maïwenn), take a road trip to the isolated farm house where Alex's family lives. On the first night they're there, a ruthless serial killer breaks into the house and kills everyone except Marie (who is hiding) and Alex. He binds and gags Alex, then bundles her into the back of his truck. Marie unwittingly hitches a ride. The action shifts to an isolated gas station then to the middle of the woods as Marie attempts to free Alex without being gutted. And, judging by the ugly state of his previous victims, the killer doesn't have much mercy.

The film revels in blood and gore, but this is not just a run-of-the-mill splatter film. There's a lot of intelligence in both the script and in Alexandre Aja's direction. The cinematography and music score are edgy. There are numerous subtle nods to earlier movies (everything from Halloween to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), although none of them are as jokily self-referential as those in Scream. For those who enjoy horror films and don't mind copious quantities of red-dyed fluids, this one is not to be missed. It's a triumph of the Grand Guignol.

High Tension (France, 2003)

Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Cécile De France, Maïwenn
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Cinematography: Maxime Alexandre
Music: François Eudes
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English dubbed French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1