January 06, 2014

Lerman's 14 For '14 Day Three: HIGH TENSION Is A Beautiful, Bloody High Wire Act

"I'm glad I finally met your family."
I can't believe it's really been ten years since High Tension came out.  I've been meaning to watch this movie forever, but I hadn't realized that so much time had passed.  It's a feeling that comes more and more frequently these days, especially when it comes to stuff like attending my little brother's college graduation in the spring.  It's little wonder that I missed this film in its theatrical run, as horror films historically tend to fall pretty low on my list of priorities, but my recent month-long horror extravaganza has certainly given me a better appreciation for the genre.  This was the film that put director Alexandre Aja on the map in America, and oddly enough I've actually seen his two best known follow-ups, remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D.  (He also has a film coming out this year in which Daniel Radcliffe sprouts devil horns.)

The film's title perfectly captures what makes it so engrossing.  The story follows two attractive college girls, Marie and Alex, who head off to the latter's remote family home in order to study for exams.  But shortly after arriving, a hulking hillbilly in a rusted out delivery truck arrives and forces his way into the house, silently slaughtering the entire family and kidnapping Alex.  Marie is able to hide and then stow away in the van in order to rescue Alex, who Marie is secretly in love with.  And so the majority of the film is an exercise in maintaining tension, placing the audience directly in Marie's shoes and drawing out her discovery by their attacker for as long as humanly possible until the two are forced to eventually confront each other in the woods.  Taken purely as an exercise in dramatic momentum, the film is wildly successful.  I was at the edge of my seat and talking to the screen the whole time.

Sadly, it's easy to see why most people probably walk away from High Tension dwelling not on the film's masterful second act, but instead on the crazy third act twist.  Typically I'd tip-toe around the spoilers, but considering the film is now over a decade old, we might as well dig in.  When the police finally enter the picture, they watch security footage from a gas station revealing that the killer was actually Marie the whole time, that she's been suffering from a sort of psychotic break and enacting all this violence herself through some imagined persona.  It's one of those reveals that works really well in the moment, but quickly falls apart the more you mull it over.  Obvious cracks appear, like where did the truck come from in the first place?  And, for that matter, what the hell was with that truly bizarre non-sequitur in the film's opening moments, in which the hillbilly is introduced sitting in his truck nearby Alex's home hours before the girls even arrive?  Sure, the fact that he's jerking off into a goddamn severed head is disgusting and certainly makes for a memorable moment, but once you have all the pieces it makes no sense whatsoever.

Even still, Aja direction is so strong and Cecile De France's* performance as Marie is so fantastic, both as a kickass final girl and as a creepy as hell psychopath (that final shot is a doozy), that I kind of don't care.  It's such an enjoyable ride in the moment that I can't help but love it, and the way the film's opening scene is reframed at the end is exactly the kind of thing I'm always a big sucker for.  (One of this year's Oscar contenders pulls off the same trick beautifully, although I won't reveal which one for those who are still playing awards season catch-up.)  I fear that High Tension might be a bit of a one-shot deal, that without the element of the unknown to maintain the audience's anxiety, the film might not be nearly so much fun.  Nonetheless, I look forward to revisiting it a few months down the road to see how well it holds up.

What's The Connection? - Both Crazy Love and High Tension depict a character driven to acts of insane violence in the name of love/infatuation.

Up Next - A Serbian Film

*I couldn't place why Cecile De France looked so familiar as I was watching the film, but when I looked her up I realized that she also played Isabelle, the lesbian in L'Auberge Espagnole.

Title: Haute Tension (High Tension)
Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Cecile De France, Maiwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea
Year Of Release: 2003
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

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