Review Date: October 11, 2005
Released by: Lions Gate
Release date: 11/10/2005
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
The slasher genre is in a sad state these days. Not since Scream
has there really been an all out “great” slasher film. And now, with our influx of recycled ideas and by-the-numbers remakes, America has very much resorted to giving us the same clichéd crap that Scream
was mocking ten years ago. Where is the ingenuity? You know you are in troubled times when slashers like Wrong Turn
and House of Wax
get praised simply on the grounds that they don’t completely suck. There was great hope then, when it was announced that Lions Gate would be distributing in North America a little film called Haute Tension that was making waves overseas. If America isn’t going to deliver anything fresh, why not give the Europeans a shot?
Considering Lions Gate unveiled cult films like Cabin Fever
, House of 1000 Corpses
to great success in the last few years, they seemed to be the natural home for Tension to fall into. Haute Tension then became High Tension
, as Lions Gate sought to make it more marketable to American audiences. Then the French audio became an English dub. Then came the scissors. Over a minute of blood and gore was cut, making Lions Gate’s version of High Tension
seem more like High Treason. It is no surprise then, that this hack job flopped at the box office, although I am sure the Gate placed the blame on the fact that the film was foreign or any other factor other than its censorship.
Thus, America’s new hope at a slasher rebirth was sent limping right out of the gate, all chances at success hindered from the get go. So it is now on home video, where the film is finally being released fully uncut, that it will finally get its chance to leave a mark on the genre. Is this bloody recapitulation of themes from slashers past the savior the genre needs, or is it no fresher than your typical American remake?
Marie (Cecile de France
) and Alexia (Maiwenn
) are taking a road trip for the weekend. They are headed up to Alexia’s parents’ farm house where they plan on countering their College girl hangovers with some serious studying. On the car ride they talk about boys, partying, school. Meanwhile, just outside the perimeter of Alexia’s parents’ place a burly man in a beat down truck can be seen receiving oral sex. He orgasms and then throws the severed head of his love partner out of the window. This is his first victim.
Marie and Alexia make it home after sunset, and they do the formal greetings with the family and then get ready for bed. Alexia showers, Marie goes out for a smoke. Alexia can be seen showering through the window. Marie notices, puts out her smoke, then goes back inside. She wasn’t the only one who noticed, however. Moments later, there is a ringing on the door. A slow buzz at the start, then a long, loud ring, as the dad gets out of bed to go and see what all the fuss is about. Before he even gets to open the door he gets a knife to the head and then much, much worse. The burly killer makes his way into the house, where he goes on to deal with the rest of the family members. The worst is yet to come.
Alexia is captured and thrown in his dirty truck, where it is clear he has placed many of his other female conquests. Marie luckily went unnoticed, and she finds herself also in the truck trying to help free Alexia. Before the night ends and before the door opens, Marie must think of a way to stop from becoming just another head on his phallic mantle. It will take patience, it will take cunning, it will take tension, but the answer for Marie’s survival lies within.
When Cabin Fever
came out in 2003, there was no other film I wanted to like more. A horror film made in the tradition of gritty classics like The Last House on the Left
and The Evil Dead
and by someone who knew more about the horror genre than just The Exorcist
, it promised to be a film by and for the horror fan. When it deviated into one bloated and unfocused mess of a finale, I couldn’t help but clamor for the film it could have been. Imagine my reservation then, when High Tension
, also made by a horror fan film director equally influenced by The Last House on the Left
, was reported to have a totally ludicrous ending. I therefore went into the film with open arms but waited to be letdown, but I was instead blown away. This is the best slasher, hell, the best horror film, to come out in years.
Right from the start the film titillates with the voyeuristic gaze of the camera. Whether Marie is running through corn fields or simply sitting on a swing, the camera seems to always follow with a weightless prodding. What is she thinking, who is watching and what should we the viewer be watching? The film raises all these questions with an immaculate visual polish. The whole thing is like Argento on speed, when the camera moves our eyes follow, and we want to see more. The visual style is so kinetic, the camera always moving, but it never seems excessive or empty like many other high style horror films. When Marie is hiding out in the closet and through the slits sees her friend’s mother getting her throat slit, you realize just how important perspective can be. Sometimes, the horror is not what is being shown on screen, it is how you are seeing it. When you watch from behind the closet slits and want to close them for fear of what you will see, you know the director has done a good job at involving the audience visually.
And when I say involved, I mean it. Director Alexandre Aja’s style never lets up. When most slashers would cut to some teenage pranks or investigative banter to offset the horror Aja keeps the shots lingering on the action. He commits to his scares, earning each by keeping you totally involved. You can’t look away, and he won’t let you either. There is hardly any dialogue at all after the first fifteen minutes, the ambience and visuals totally taking over once the killer starts slashing. Through the perfect orchestration of harsh ambient music, creeping sound effects and that ever-moving camera Aja is able to sustain a more than just a movie, he is able to sustain an experience. The tension is so thick throughout that you feel the every heart beat of the actors involved. You know the film works when after the killer leaves and Marie uncovers her mouth to breathe that you yourself breathe out with her. This is a movie so emotionally encompassing that you want to unplug the phone, close the blinds, tape your eyelids open and just watch. It’s an experience.
Since this is a movie that relies on mood and tension to express itself, mention must be made of Cecile de France’s performance. This is not a dialogue driven film. There is hardly any. And yet, through the few lines of dialogue France has, you get a total sense of character. She is one of the toughest and yet most vulnerable characters I’ve seen in horror, one minute strong the next cowering for her life, and in lieu of the finale that duality is all the more fascinating. Her performance is such a physical one, and she sells it. You spend so much time just lingering on her face, watching her as she listens for the footsteps of the killer. You see her every quirk and you believe it all wholeheartedly. There is never a barrier between her and the audience. She exposes herself sexually in a scene of masturbation, and by that point she is such a raw and believable character that she avoids being a sex object and instead its subject. She has her moment of self-pleasure and instead of titillating over it, you leave the pleasure to her. It’s her moment, and she deserves it. By the end of the film you feel as emotionally exhausted as Marie, having been through an entire journey. It’s one of the best physical performances the genre has ever seen.
This is one of those rare films where all the variables just click in a total perfection. Like in Halloween
, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
, The Exorcist
, if you were to remove any one element: the music, the actors, the effects, the movie just wouldn’t work. In High Tension
, the sound, performances, editing and effects-work are all so perfectly intermingled that it is tough to imagine a better fusion of talent. Rounding off Aja’s voyeuristic camera, France’s organic performance, Baxter’s tight editing, and Francois Eudes’ visceral music is Giannetto de Rossi’s groundbreaking effects work. There are certainly gorier films out there, but it’s rare to see gore orchestrated so well as it is here. De Rossi is a Fulci veteran and the film has all the grisly gore that defined Fulci’s most lucid creative period, but yet it feels better under Aja’s tighter direction.
Like in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence
, the gore comes in spurts, and the tension in the scenes that the gore follows is so thick that the gore seems all the more overbearing. Fulci had a tendency to linger on his gore as if it mattered more than the plot (in his mind, I’m sure it did). But in many ways lingering on gore robs it of its effectiveness. In keeping the pacing airtight, Aja uses gore to heighten the tension rather than draw attention away from it. High Tension
is not the bloodiest or the goriest movie ever made, but after sitting through the tension and the suspense that surrounds the effects work, you’d swear it was.
A review of the film would not be complete without mention of the controversial ending. Critics and fans alike have derided it mainly on the grounds that it defies any sort of plausible logic. There is no physical way the ending can make sense. But dwelling on the logistics of the scenario is totally besides the point. Complaining about logic in High Tension
is like pointing out Mary Poppins wouldn’t be able to really fly using only an umbrella. The ending does not work in logic, but it works emotionally, and in the horror film, emotion is paramount. For the first two thirds the movie is an amazing example of a taut genre film, but in its finale it becomes something more. Aja may have bitten off more than he could chew, but admiration all around for his fearless vision. This is not a movie that relies on its twist ending, but its ending only helps to add further layering to what on the surface seems like a stylish slasher exercise.
When the film fades to black, you realize that what you’ve just seen is something audacious. Something that pushes the limits of where the slasher and the horror film in general can go. Aja is not content with just making an effective slasher exercise. He strives for something more. The renaissance in seventies horror filmmaking was defined by that very desire to push the envelope, to go to places where the studios wouldn’t ever dare. High Tension
is game to experiment, and not since The Blair Witch Project
has a film succeeded in extending the walls of the genre. In a time when horror films are content with just emulating old successes, here is finally one that strives to create a new success all its own. In Aja the transcendental seventies horror spirit is reborn.
was shot on a fast film stock to give it that fine level of seventies grain, and with that in mind the transfer is beautiful. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film has a sharpness that prevails despite the grain of the stock. You see every pore on the killer’s face, and things as subtle as a bead of sweat come through nice and clear. This is a dark film, with most of the happenings occurring at night, but the transfer never gets too dark, lingering at just the right level so as to provide mood but retain shadow detail. Aja’s stylish color scheme retains its harsh contrast, with the crimson red contrasting nicely with Cecile de France’s harsh yellow skin tone. This looks like a seventies film remastered to perfect clarity, and that is just how it should.
The film is presented in both the original French track and the dubbed English track, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. First up, the French track is the one to go with, since the dubbing on the English is somewhat unnatural, sounding over the top at times and then drifting into French at others. The French is the most consistent, and considering that very little of the film is dialogue driven anyway, it won’t really matter much 20 minutes in. The surround work on both the 5.1 tracks is good, although it could have helped to be a bit more directional. There are a few bits of channel separation when Marie is listening for the killer, but it isn’t done nearly enough. Still, both 5.1 tracks come through forcefully, and while directionality may be lacking, amplitude certainly isn’t. Whatever track you choose, High Tension
The biggest supplement is of course the fact that the film is presented uncut. As previously mentioned, there are some amazing bits of gore that bit the dirt in the North American theatrical run, but they’ve all been restored here for the unrated version. This film has some of the most effective uses of gore the genre has ever seen, so their inclusion is tantamount to experience the film. Although the back advertises “two additional versions”, one being the “original French director’s cut version” and the other the “English dubbed version”, the difference is only in the audio. The video track for both versions is the same length, although the somewhat convoluted and confusion menu screen would suggest otherwise.
Moving onto extras, the first is an introduction with Aja and Writer Gregory Levasseur, but its inclusion is rendered useless since it is in French without any subtitling options. Since its only thirty seconds it isn’t of matter – they are basically just saying their names – but still, it’s a wee bit frustrating. Another frustration is a key extra that is not advertised on the back of the DVD nor is it on the extras menu. It is a commentary with Aja and Levasseur, and it can only be accessed through the confusing setup menu. The two are very passionate about the film, and are able to speak despite knowing little English. There are a fair bit of idle pauses, but it’s a fairly lively track with some good information. Who would have thought a film so much like Halloween
would actually be so strongly inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The commentary that was advertised was one with Aja and Cecile de France, although it is only for five selected scenes. France is very quiet, most likely due to discomfort with the English language, but Aja still has a lot to say. He talks about how the movie was wholeheartedly indebted to the films of the seventies, and how films then were so much scarier than they are now. It would have been nice to hear France say a little more, but basically this is just another commentary with Aja that runs a combined 45 minutes.
The big video extra is a making-of featurette entitled “Haute Horror” and it runs twenty five minutes. Aja and Levasseur start out talking how they met through sharing old Fangorias, and then move on to talk about the film from conception to finished product. Much time is spent on the actors, with interviews from each of the principals. France talks about how she had to lose a lot of weight to give her character a harsh, strong look, while Phillipe Nahon, who played the killer, talked about how he didn’t want to be typecast. Talk is then devoted to some individual scenes, and various problems that came out of them. The theme for the whole doc is that limited funds forces creativity, and they all correctly agree that the finished product was one to be proud of.
There are two shorter featurettes included as well, the eight minute “Building Tension” featurette, and the seven minute effects doc “Giannetto De Rossi: The Truth, the Madness and the Magic”. “Building Tension” is kind of an offset of the “Haute Horror” feature, although it presents itself as somewhat of a visual tutorial on how to create tension in a horror film. It showcases the amazing gas station escape from an editing standpoint, but the whole thing seems a little arrogant by design. Still, Aja gives some good information how he went about the editing, sound and cinematography in the film. The De Rossi doc is filled with behind-the-scenes shots of the gore being applied and the actors having fun on set. De Rossi talks about his career and why he chose to work with unknowns for this picture, and it’s nice to just sit down with one of the masters and let him speak.
Lastly, the disc is rounded out with a handful of trailers, none of which, peculiarly, are for High Tension
. The ones we are given are for Crash
, House of D
, the awful looking Desperate Souls
, Dark Harvest 2
, and Saw II
. I don’t think anyone would have complained if ads for Desperate Souls
and Dark Harvest 2
were dropped to include the original trailer for High Tension
, but alas.
So despite a confusing setup menu and some unlikely inclusions and exclusions, the extras are a bit of a mixed bag here. There is a lot of content, but there could have been a bit more, and the content that is there is never as articulate as it could have been had the participants been speaking their native language. Still, on the whole it offers a nice window into the production of one of the most important horror films to come out in some time.
lives up to its name and then some. It is a film of amazing craft and intelligence, and one that dares to experiment and push the genre to new limits. It is daring in the way the best seventies movies were, and hopefully it will be remembered with the same fondness of all the seventies horror greats. Not since The Blair Witch Project
has horror felt like such a complete and captivating experience. Lions Gate does good by presenting the film finally uncut and with both English and French audio options. The 5.1 mix is good, the video quality is even better, and the supplements will keep you busy for some time. People have been complaining about the lack of originality of horror as of late, but complain no more. High Tension
is here, and a high recommendation it gets.
Movie - A
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - B
- Running Time - 1 hour 31 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- French Dolby Digital 5.1
- English 2.0 Stereo
- French 2.0 Stereo
- English subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Audio Commentary with Director Alexandre Aja and Writer Greg Levasseur
- Select scene audio commentary with Alexandre Aja and Cecile de France
- Introduction by Alexandre Aja and Greg Levasseur
- "Haute Horror - The Making of High Tension"
- "Building Tension" featurette
- "Giannetto De Rossi: The Truth, the Madness and the Magic" featurette
- Lions Gate trailers