10/9/09

High Tension (2003): A Haute Mess

The French, in the last few years, have seriously shown their true colors in the horror world. Where the Italians and Spanish had previously flourished in the genre, this has been the decade of the French horror film. Directors Xavier Gens, Pascal Laugier, and David Moreau have all proved themselves to be directors with a new vision. When they bring their vision stateside, results may vary. Gens hopped genres and missed the mark with his video game adaptation Hitman, and Moreau chose to remake The Eye with Jessica Alba. So when I saw Mirrors by French director Alexandre Aja, I tried not to hold it against him.

Alexandre Aja is not, as some have said, related to Steely Dan’s best selling 1977 album, but I’ve heard people say a lot of things about Aja. Things about him being one of the future great directors in the genre. Things about how much they liked his debut French film, but also things that were not as complementary. Haute Tension, released in the States as High Tension and in the UK as Switchblade Romance, is a simple enough story. Marie (Cacile de France) travels with her American friend Alexa (Maiwenn Le Besco) to the new home that Alexa’s family has brought in the French countryside. That night when everyone is asleep, a man invades the home and proceeds to kill off Alexa’s family and take her hostage. Marie first tries to escape, but when she sees her friend being taken away, she tries to help her friend escape and discover the identity of the madman.

Right off the bat, for anyone who has seen this film, I want to get this out of the way. Though I will not be spoiling anything, this film hits its “make or break moment” in the last thirteen minutes. Up until then, it was a fairly underwhelming slasher with some better than average gore moments. A few of which, I rather enjoyed. The last 13 minutes of the film made me want to put my foot through my TV. I really should have known. I felt tipped off at a very early moment in the film, but I thought there was no way the story could hinge on such a premise. Then my wife, the lovely Ms. Directed, who had not seen the scene that tipped me off, figured it out before the film hit its halfway point. The final scenes of High Tension ruined anything it had managed to build up in the previous hour and fifteen minutes.

Now I do have some nice things to say about this film, but I’m going to save those for a bit later on because I’m not quite done bashing this one. High Tension was filmed with that lovely green/blue hue that was so pervasive in the early years of this decade. Personally I blame it on David Fincher who never saw a blue hue he didn’t like. (There are a few other things in this film that might be blamed on Fincher as well.) I also thought that the plot of the film seemed awful familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Now lots of people crap on Dean Koontz. Admittedly he’s kind of a hack, but he’s a hack who can write a damn entertaining book sometimes.

One of those books, which I had all but forgotten, was Intensity. Now I will admit I could not recall where I had heard the story before I saw others mention it, but after refreshing my memory, I dug out the book and hit some high points. Sure enough, up until the last reel there are some striking similarities between Aja and Gregory Levasseur’s script and the horror hack’s novel. As far as I can tell no lawyers were ever called in, and I could not find any quotes from the author or the director about this similarity between the two works, but I think it bears mentioning. I have heard that there are no original stories, only variations on them, but to have so many specific plot points come up seems more than a coincidence.

So now that I’ve basically trashed the entire film, there were some things I liked about it. First off, the arsenal. You get to see kills perpetrated by a straight razor, a large piece of furniture, an axe, and most impressively a concrete saw. Oh, I almost forgot the beating dealt out by a piece of wood wrapped with barbed wire. For a minute there I thought I was watching a rematch of Cactus Jack and Terry Funk, but that would have been fun to see. The vast array of weapons leads me right into the second thing I liked in this flick, the blood. While the streets don’t exactly run red with the stuff, there are several scenes that pay off with a nice spot of gore. It makes good sense too. Aja had wisely hired Giannetto De Rossi, the special effects artist who made his name with Fulci’s classic Zombi 2. The gore is the film’s greatest virtue.

I do think I should take a moment to talk about the performances. Maiwenn Le Besco was formally the paramour of Luc Besson, and many people may know her from her role as La Diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element. Le Besco has very little to do in the film, but the scenes where she does perform show her to be a skillful actress. The star of the film, Cecile de France, makes less of am impression strangely even though there are few scenes that do not include her. I suppose the conceit of the film requires her to be something of a blank slate, but as the only real character, I needed her to be somewhat more interesting. The only person I wanted to know anything more about was the killer played with wonderful menace by French actor Phillippe Nahon. He kind of reminded me a bit of John Jarrett as Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek, and I’m sure the two would have some notes to compare. Nahon is a veteran screen actor with 150 screen credits reaching back to the early sixties including roles in Brotherhood of the Wolf and the forthcoming Belgian film Cannibal.

I know that many people will probably disagree with me on this one. I have heard opinions about all of Aja’s films pro and con. Some people love High Tension, his American debut, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and even a few enjoy Mirrors, but there seem to be plenty of people on the opposing side. While the French have churned out a quite a number of horror directors in the last few years who deserve to be lauded and praised, I’m not convinced that Aja is among them. I will admit that when he finishes his next project, Piranha 3-D, I will be in line on opening weekend, but I won’t be for Aja, I’ll be there for 3-D man eating fish. Sometimes you got to have priorities.




Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. I never had much patience for this one either. For me, it's a rather generic slasher with an infuriating twist that destroys the little goodwill I have for it.
    So, you're not alone.

    ReplyDelete
  2. http://nakedeskimo.blogspot.com/2009/04/breaking-high-tension.html

    Rather than clog up your comments section with my thoughts. Suffice to say I love this film.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Eskie, I actually thought about you while I was writing my review. I recalled hearing you say you like it in one of your voice mails to one for the shows. Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment

    Dennis, thanks for commenting as well, I hoped there were others like me out there.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I thought that the first 30 minutes of this movie were really good, maybe the scariest 30 minutes of any movie I have ever seen. But once they got to the gas station, it all went downhill for me.
    I thought the movies twist actually ruined the film.
    Good catch on comparing it to Intensity. Thought they did it more justice than the made for TV movie for sure.

    ReplyDelete

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