Saturday, June 11, 2005

REVIEW: High Tension

WARNING: This review may contain information that may be regarded as "spoilers," read at your own risk.

Let's get this part out of the way: YES, this film is French. If you're planning on skipping it solely because of that, out of some kind of obnoxious instinct you've mistaken for patriotism, I'm begging you: Take the 90 minutes you might otherwise have spent watching this film and grow up.

Now, if you're planning on skipping it because you don't enjoy subtitles, I can offer this: Though most theaters are advertising the film as "French with subtitles," a curious technique has been employed to dub roughly 70-80% of the spoken dialogue into English: A single added line of dialogue turns a main character and her family from native French citizens into American expatriates, allowing for nearly the entirety of the film's talk-heavy first act have all it's actors speaking English. After that, the French-speaking characters take over for the most part... but by then the film is largely running and killing, without time for talk. This accomplishes it's primary goal of rendering the film more "accessible" to English-speaking audiences, but it also may have the curious effect of turning what was intentioned as a French spin on the American "slasher" genre into, for some, a kind of parable about an innocent American family being (literally) torn to shreds by a perverse French psychopath.

Depending on your genre-preferences, you may or may not recall a French film released a few years back to major fanfare but lukewarm U.S. boxoffice called "Brotherhood of The Wolf." Only a minor hit Stateside, internationally the film represented and indeed was intended to represent a throwing down of the gauntlet by the French film industry i.e. it's lack of "street cred" in the blockbuster business. Director Christophe Gans was famously told by his producer to "beat the Americans at their own game," and he didn't just beat us... he kicked our ever-living ass.

A Hollywood-style "summer" action-adventure in the vein of "The Mummy" but bloodier, sexier and smarter than the Hollywood equivalent would ever be permitted to be (everything worth understanding about the difference between America and France can be understood in the truth that the French produce ultraviolent movies but feign a marked disdain for the actual violence of war, whereas America puts tremendous stock in it's martial prowess while maintaining a puritanical censorship of films, TV and radio,) "Brotherhood" was a direct and bold statement from the French film industry to Hollywood: "From now on, anything you can do we can do also... and maybe better." "High Tension," ("Haute Tension" in it's native France and, for some reason, "Switchblade Romance" in England,) viewed as a presence on the world-cinema stage, is something of a followup to that original challenge: "Yes, we can even make these!"

"These," for the record, being the venerable American genre-staple of the rural "slasher" horror flick. The film takes a "Friday the 13th"-style lumbering unkillable super-killer, gives him the keys to the big-rusty-truck-from-hell from "Jeepers Creepers" and sends him to a very "Texas Chainsaw"-reminiscient farm county in the south of France. A pair of female college students, Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex, arrive at the home of Alex's family to study (it becomes immediately apparent that Marie is mostly there to study Alex, the subject of her unrequitted sapphic crush) only to have their plans cut short when a hulking ogre of a serial killer invites himself into the house.

Posessed of the standard-issue "Jason"-level super strength and situational weapon skills, the killer spends a good deal of time turning Alex's mother, father and younger brother into Fangoria photo-spreads while Marie darts through the shadows trying in vain to call for help. When the killer kidnaps Alex, Marie follows him and the film descends into a tense chase-and-stalk piece where the innability to find help slowly turns Marie into an impromptu action-heroine; eventually employing an improvised weapon that'll likely go down with "Evil Dead 2's" hand-mounted chainsaw and "Shaun of The Dead's" cricket bat in the pantheon of horror movie weaponry.

Aside from it's French origins and the overtness of it's lesbian-longing angle, the film isn't really trying to break much new ground. It's extremely unnerving and unpleasant, builds it's titular tension well, and features it's share of novel kills and inventive bloodletting. That's about the most one can honestly ask of any "slasher" movie at this point, whatever country it comes from. The point here is to make France a player on the horror scene, not THE player.

By now, you may or may not have heard that the film eventually arrives at a kind of twist, and you may or may not have heard that it's decidedly a "love it or hate it" addition to the overall film. At the risk of spoiling it for you (your genre-acumen will determine how quickly you figure it out, if at all) I'm going to say nothing about it save that it both adds a lot of texture to the film but also subtracts a certain quotient of logic. I'll leave it up to you to figure whether you think the loss is worth the gain.

Bottom line: Solid slasher entry, more remarkable for where it's come from than the condition in which it's arrived. Worth a look.



Scott said...

Damn shame about that retarded final act twist, because until that point the movie is a stylish little slasher pic. Hopefully Aja's remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" won't resort to such a lazy screenwriting device.

Bob said...

NOTE: This being the comments section and not visible from the main page, SPOILERS will be mentioned here.

The final twist doesn't bother me too much aside from the logical issues involved, i.e. WHERE exactly did she get the truck?? and the fact that, by now, the "hero is schizophrenic and IS the villian" is a monstrously overused device.

That said, I DO like what the twist is implying about Marie's character, and the idea that the whole event is her acting out a grand rescue-the-lady-in-peril fantasy with herself in both roles.

I also like what it potentially infers about the "appearance" of The Killer: big, sweaty, slovenly, blue-collar, brutish, in other words the embodiment of the "evil of males" which Marie desires to "save" her would-be female lover from.

On the flips side, I'm also hearing that some feel the twist reveals an ugly edge of homophobic allegory in the film, i.e. the implication that Marie being a woman lusting after other women and "dreaming" of being a surly male truck-driver is meant as a slam on lesbianism in general. Can't say I agree, but it's an interesting way to read the material.