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Friday, June 16, 2023

Why High Tension Still Divides Audiences 20 Years Later

For a lot of people, Alexandre Aja‘s High Tension (Haute Tension) was their first taste of the New French Extremity. And since 2003, this French slasher has been a source of frustration for horror buffs; they feel betrayed after witnessing one of the most shocking plot twists to come out of the genre. All the while, there are those who are fascinated by the film’s audacity and multifaceted story. Wherever someone might fall on the spectrum, though, everyone can at least agree that High Tension is impossible to forget.

The conventional slasher film never quite caught on in France like it did in the United States. There are exceptions here and there, of course, but as a whole, this subgenre of horror is more of a local flavor than a universal one. However, by the time High Tension had come out, American slashers themselves were victims of postmodern overkill, parody and stagnation. No one took these films seriously anymore once Scream 3 came and went — especially not the filmmakers. In the meantime, transgressive French cinema was on the rise around the turn of the century. Not every film is of the horror persuasion, at least not in the traditional sense, yet these feral stories intentionally evoke a variety of unpleasant feelings.

High Tension is widely recognized as the first film to combine the conventions of horror with the intent and style of the New French Extremity movement. This riff on a well-known setup — women are terrorized by a bloodthirsty assailant — sounds old hat, but the execution is what seized everyone’s attention back then. Free of self-awareness, High Tension draws from the vintage era of slasher films as opposed to the then-recent revival. Marie and Alex (Cécile de France and Maïwenn) portray hapless victims who neither laugh in the face of their attacker nor seek comfort in irreverence. Because they take their dilemma seriously, so do the viewers. Playing everything straight was seen as refreshing.

High Tension

High Tension starts out like other slashers. Students Marie and Alex are visiting Alex’s family in the South of France (really Romania near Bucharest) when a random intruder (Philippe Nahon) suddenly breaks into the house and murders everyone but the two protagonists. Alex is then taken hostage by the killer, urging Marie to come save her. The body count continues to rise as the hero and villain play an especially sanguinary game of cat-and-mouse in the countryside. It all sounds like a series of horror clichés, yet the story does something bizarre and startling toward the end. 

(There are major spoilers beyond this point.)

According to some, one seismic revelation undoes all of High Tension’s good work. To this day critics and audiences alike bemoan the fact that Marie had been the killer all along and how everything seen in the film’s first two acts was her distorted account. The needle has hardly moved an inch in regards to the story’s devastating curveball; the double-crossness of it all still leaves a sting in repeat viewings. To forgive this kind of cinematic head fake seems next to impossible, but detractors can find merit in the film even if they cannot reconcile the ending.

High Tension implements as well as investigates the basic framework of American slashers. While many of its more recent predecessors relocated the killing sprees to urban surroundings and turned everyday safe spaces into death traps, this film steps further into the past. Rural environments, deserted highways, and an isolated farmhouse all register as clichés of the genre. In truth, though, Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur are using familiar horror iconography to create a false sense of comfort. The audience, thinking they know what is in store for the characters, fail to realize they too are becoming victims of someone’s break from reality.

Circling back to the divisive ending, High Tension takes the biggest of risks by turning the hero into the villain. Additional viewings would naturally involve the hunting of clues that foreshadow the story’s jarring turn of events. Upon closer inspection, the opening shows Marie inside an unknown facility, injured and incoherent, repeatedly muttering a line heard later on in the film (“I won’t let anyone come between us anymore.”) Then immediately the scene transitions to Marie waking up from a dream on the way to Alex’s house, claiming she was running away from what looks to be herself. What might have been dismissed as a throwaway line is actually a significant indicator of what is to come. 

High Tension

Now aware of the film’s conclusion, rational viewers will undoubtedly be irritated as they go back and uncover one plot hole after the other. To seek logic in High Tension is a Sisyphean task, though, only because the story comes from an unreliable narrator. Marie, in her current frame of mind, is untrustworthy. Rather than admitting her romantic feelings for Alex, she becomes a man. Not an ordinary man either — the killer is a stereotypical brute who unflinchingly acts on every desire and craving without consideration or remorse. He will take Alex’s love, and if not her love, her body. Her life. Eventually Marie subdues her dark half, albeit temporarily, before resuming to inflict her psychological drama on everyone around her.

To convey their hopelessness and harsh worldviews, New French Extremities tend to employ superrealism. This approach is not far off from that of older Grindhouse films, although filmmakers like Aja pursue a more painful aesthetic. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, a frequent collaborator of Aja, turned in an impeccable-looking debut with High Tension. The film has a metallic, cold gloss to match the killer’s deadly instruments, the overall bleak appearance channels the foreboding horrors of gritty exploitation classics, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, and the graphic extravagances of Italian gore masters Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava are evident in the kills. The ferocity of High Tension is certainly not for squeamish or general audiences, however, in line with other works from the New French Extremity movement, this film always manages to find the beauty in destruction.

Some would go so far as to call High Tension a waste of time. It is understandable that the twist would upset people — even more so than the story’s actual violence — but perhaps that was the goal all along. Bodies have been violated and destroyed in horror for decades prior to Aja’s own quarrelsome take on the slasher formula, and audiences, at the time, were not as receptive as they once were. Nothing felt unsafe anymore, so something had to change. Nevertheless, this unique abandonment of self-conscious horror accomplishes what it set out to do; it completely unsettles the viewer like anything else to come out of the New French Extremity. The only difference is High Tension achieves its goal in the most unexpected way.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

High Tension

The post Why ‘High Tension’ Still Divides Audiences 20 Years Later appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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