With almost a century of history behind it, the horror movie genre is hard pressed to present a film that offers a new take on the material. At first glance, the 2003 French film High Tension, just now hitting U.S. theaters, appears to be yet another “Attractive-young-women-stalked-by-a-maniac” story, albeit a well-crafted one. But the film springs a surprise on the viewer about two-thirds of the way through, that elevates the movie above its genre origins.
Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) and her friend Marie (Cecile de France) have arrived at Alex’s family’s isolated farmhouse for a weekend of studying, away from all the temptations college life has to offer. However, the weekend is interrupted by the arrival of a brutish, hulking man, who doesn’t say anything, but begins systematically moving through the house killing Alex’s family. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game through the house as Marie tries to evade the killer and rescue Alex that culminates
Director Alexandre Aja has created a film that has a setup that reads like a throw back to the grindhouse slasher films of the early 1970s, but comes off surprisingly fresh in its execution. Aja understands that what made those old films work was not just copious amounts of gore – which this film delivers to a point where on certain occasions you wonder if it should classified as a “splasher” and not a “slasher” film – but mood as well. He effectively creates an atmosphere of tension and dread, in part by effectively playing up the creepiness that can be found in poorly lit older homes. He also knows that one’s imagination can conjure terror far more effectively than anyone could conceivably show on the screen, and as such, knows when to cut away from showing certain grisly acts, allowing sound effects and a small spray of blood to suggest far more than buckets of fake innards being thrown about ever could. Yet surprisingly, for all the on screen Grand Guignol that is shown, one of the single most effective moments is comparatively mundane – Marie removing a glass shard from her ankle.
It’s hard to further discuss the movie with out revealing the film’s last-reel twist and to spoil it here would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the rest of the film that preceded it. Some long time fans of horror films are going to complain that the twist is not that original, and they would be right. However, this film’s twist doesn’t come from out of left field as a way to send the movie off in a new direction, the way such plot devices have been used before. Instead, it develops naturally out of what Aja had previously established in character moments early on and serves to continue the story’s momentum, not alter its course. Needless to say, the reveal stands the movie on its head and leaves the viewer to re-evaluate everything that has come before. It gives to High Tension an incredibly dark psychological depth and dimension not usually seen in this genre.