Feb 24, 2009

Why haven't you seen... 9

Haute Tension [Switchblade Romance / High Tension]
(2003) Dir: Alexandre Aja

What’s it all about?
It’s pretty standard slasher fare. College friends Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) go to Alex’s parents’ country home for a break, but on their first night there a man (Philippe Nahon) breaks into the house, murders the whole family and kidnaps Alex. Scared stiff, Marie follows the killer, determined to save her friend.

Why haven’t you seen it?
Take your pick really, from the unappealing English title, which simultaneously does a poor job of representing the film and alienates audiences, to the rubbish UK poster and DVD cover, to the mere fact that subtitles (despite the fact that the film features no more than 15 minutes of dialogue) limit a film's audience

Why should you see it?
Alexandre Aja’s back to basics, nasty as all hell slasher was the opening salvo from a new French horror scene that has since given us Frontiere(s) and Inside, and will soon serve up Martyrs, among others, and it’s both a great film and a great jumping off point to experience this new wave.

When the film first came out horror fans were wooed not by the cast, not by the director (this was Aja’s first feature) but by the fact that the great Gianetto DiRossi, famed for his work with Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci, and particularly Zombi 2 (released in the UK under the near peerless title Zombie Flesh Eaters) was responsible for the special make up effects. Haute Tension was obviously made on quite a tight budget, but that doesn’t appear to impact DiRossi and his department, because the gore effects - from an absolutely astounding slit throat, to a mashed head - are brilliant, convincing, and slightly sick making. There’s no CGI in sight here, and it shows, there’s a physicality to the effects that computer just can’t replicate.

It’s not just DiRossi’s responsibility though; Alexandre Aja’s demented and disturbed imagination conjures some truly awful scenes of horror. He doesn’t lean on gore as a crutch, because there are several knuckle whitening scenes of tension, just try and watch the scene in which Nahon searches a room you know De France is in and keep your eyes open all the way through, you’ll almost certainly fail. When he unleashes at full force though it’s genuinely shocking - the scene with a circular saw is one of the most unspeakably violent and bloody images you’ll ever see. It’s hard to express what a refreshing thing this was when Haute Tension opened, at a time when horror had, for several years, been all about ghost stories with a few ‘boo’ scares. It was so nice to again be shocked, and indeed scared, in a cinema. How scary is it? Well, the girl sat behind me was cowering in her seat, weeping.

Aside from the film’s visceral thrills it has other qualities to recommend it. The performances are unusually strong, as is the screenplay. Aja gives us about 20 minutes in which to get to know and like the girls, and he manages to draw two distinct and relatively rounded individuals in very short order. This is great, because it means we’ve got an investment when, in the film’s final hour, the girls are being terrorised. The performers are also top class; Cecile De France manages to go convincingly from a rather fragile young thing to an archetypal avenging final girl, and Maiwenn LeBesco makes Alex’s total emotional collapse deeply moving.

With about 15 minutes to run Haute Tension does something that divides audiences right down the middle. I love it, the first time I saw the film I admired the huge balls of taking this turn, and on subsequent viewings it completely changes the tone of the film, without ever making it less effective. This is one hell of a trick, and the fact that it works, and that the film continues to work when you know the secret is a testament to both the fantastic performances and to Aja’s sure handed direction. Haute Tension is not for everyone. It is violent and nasty in ways that a lot of audiences will balk at, but it’s an unusually smart and well put together slasher, and it deserves a wide audience among horror fans.

How can you see it?

The UK DVD is probably the one to pick. It boasts a commentary with Aja and Cecile De France, as well as lengthy interviews with the key players and a 35 minute making of, and it’s uncut. The US Unrated version is also good, it has a different commentary with Aja and co-writer Gregory Levasseur and a 24 minute making of, as well as the uncut film.

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