Thursday, 10 October 2013

High Tension (2003) - ★★★½

Director: Alexandre Aja
Writer: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur
Stars: Cecile De France, Maiwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun

High Tension is a really good horror/thriller, sharing traits with classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Its strength lies with the searing performances and brilliant suspense building techniques, but its weakness is that it's too over the top. At times it goes so overboard that I felt some scenes should belong in a spoof of a horror movie, rather than an actual horror movie. It was the masterful ending that pushed the film into the depths of my memory, making it unforgettable. While I didn't love the film, I loved many things about it. It certainly shocked and surprised me.

Two friends, Marie (Cecile De France), and Alexa (Maiwenn), go to stay at Alexa's parents' place which is located on a cornfield in the middle of nowhere. They soon find themselves being terrorized by a maniac killer that wields a straight razor and a rusty ol' truckload of torturous weapons. It's a crazy thrill ride, one that takes you on an extremely suspenseful journey.

I found the relationship between the two girls to be really interesting. One thing that's made very clear is that Marie is in love with Alexa, who is straight. It's something many people can relate to really, unrequited love. I sensed that Marie was not only in love with Alexa, but completely devoted to her. There's shades of resentment there too because a physical relationship is seemingly impossible between the two. You can sense this all through the eyes of Cecile De France, who genuinely looks like she both lusts after and loves her best friend. This brilliantly introduced relationship set up the film perfectly. Not only do we get to know our main character on a deeply personal level, we also see how much there is for her to lose.

If you're wondering whether this is a scary movie, in my opinion it just isn't. I wasn't the least bit scared. There weren't many moments that made me quiver, scream, or even gasp. However, I did feel overcome by the suspense of it all many times. To me, that's just as important as the 'scare-factor' in horror movies. I think the chase scenes, the set-up of the story, and the highly believable performance by De France is what made it a really heart-stopping thriller. Its only drawback is that sometimes the horror music/sound effects were a bit much. For the most part, it wasn't needed to add any suspense to the film. The lonely cornfield surroundings and the quietness is sufficient enough to creep me out. Oh, and another drawback is a truly ridiculous beheading scene (which I won't go into).

As for the killer, I found him to be intimidating, but also pretty lame. On the inside, he's practically a carbon copy of Michael Myers (famous mask-wielding killer from Halloween for those who don't know). This killer hardly ever shows emotion and he walks ever so slowly (as if no one could possibly escape from him). I never really got why a killer would walk slowly when there's a large chance of their victim escaping... Oh well, horror movie logic. He comes across as some kind of hillbilly inbred from the sticks, which I've seen about a thousand times before (the best coming from the movie Deliverance). To be frank, I found his character to be an uninspired creation. One that doesn't stand out in my mind, or strike fear into my heart. If there was an ounce of originality to him, other than his pest-control like clothes he wore, then that would have made High Tension way more exciting.

I found it pretty awesome how Marie's mentality changed from fear to anger as time went on. If my best friend was moments away from being murdered, and if the police weren't on their way to stop the murderer, then I'd like to think that I'd try to save my friend too. It makes for an exciting and super suspenseful sequence. The stakes can't get any higher than that, which only made me root for Marie so much more. While it wasn't done in a particularly memorable way, it did make my heart beat fast and my stomach well-up with butterflies. So I consider High Tension a horror movie well-done.

Now for the main feast. That ending. Man oh man, High Tension has one of the best endings I've ever seen. I did not see it coming, not for one second. The last 10 minutes of the movie... perfection. Love it. I just... words cannot describe how much the ending caught me off guard.

So in the end, High Tension was an above average, riveting, unforgettable experience. I loved the performances, I loved the suspense, I loved the soundtrack, and I loved that ending! There were flaws here and there, but I can easily forgive them. My favourite stroke of genius was the line "nothing can come between us" being uttered at the beginning and end of the film. Perfect way to start, perfect way to end. It's not just a thriller, it's a crazy cinematic experience that must be seen from start to finish. It really is unforgettable.


  1. Everything was working so damn well for this movie that it makes it hurt even worse when they screw it up with that dumb twist at the end. Seriously, why couldn't Aja just leave this as an ordinary, but very bloody revenge flick, and leave it at that? Probably would have been so much more effective too. Good review Ben.

  2. See, I completely disagree. I've seen enough ordinary bloody revenge flicks in my lifetime, so it was a really welcome change to have the twist. As impossible as that twist seems, I still think it was better than the rest of the movie. I like that Aja took a chance. I'm so sick of seeing directors play it safe!

    Thanks Dan. I guess it didn't quite shock or impress you as much as it did me :)

  3. I read this post this morning, but I'm just now getting back to comment. I'm with Dan O. on this. This was a nearly perfect suspense thriller in the vein of "sometimes bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason". That completely over the top and barely coherent twist just serves to let me know that I've been watching the work of an unreliable narrator for ninety minutes, and now he's going to throw a mostly arbitrary twist at me that negates the meticulously constructed suspense of the rest of the movie.

    The movie up to that point doesn't earn that twist, which is why you don't see it coming. The director isn't playing fair. Worse, it creates an unforgivable amount of WTF about the film you've just seen. How, exactly, did Marie chase herself in two different vehicles at once? She didn't, because that twist was bogus. I love this movie, with the caveat that I advise others to turn off the movie after Marie defeats the killer, because that's the end of this perfectly assembled horror flick, and everything that comes after just lessens the quality of the good stuff you've just watched.

    I believe Aja took that chance because producer Luc Besson told him he should. I guess when you're a neophyte filmmaker and Luc Besson tells you to do something, you do it.

    Fight the haters, though, Ben. You're the only reviewer I've ever run across with the stones to defend that ending, so more power to you. :)

    1. Wow. I can't believe how alone I am on this one. Had they left the movie at her defeating the killer, then I would have turned the film off and forgot about it in a few months time. I guess you can only go on how the movie makes you feel, and that ending made me really happy :)

      I see where you're coming from, but I still disagree with you. I'll defend that ridiculous ending to the death my good man! :) Thanks for commenting.

  4. There's never any "right" or "wrong" in film criticism. lol As a horror movie fan, I'm probably more easily impressed with a simple story well crafted. We horror fans don't get too many of those. The suspense sequences are beautifully constructed, the violence is bracingly savage (is that, like, the best throat slashing ever, or what?), and the movie's score/soundscape is incredible. I hope you had the opportunity to view High Tension with a nice surround sound system. I'm often disappointed by how underutilized the audio is in a lot of horror movies that would benefit greatly from its more judicious application. . . . but I digress . . . That wacky ending isn't completely out of left field - the killer does arrive at the farmhouse at precisely the moment Marie is masturbating to climax thinking of Alexa - but it does make a gorgeously crafted simple movie significantly thornier. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is endlessly debatable. Watch Martyrs. I'd love to hear what you make of that.

  5. I completely agree. No one can say that their opinion is the right one. You can look at a movie subjectively and only see the technical aspects, or you could also let your personal feelings mix in with how you rate the movie. I personally wasn't so taken with the movie before that ending, High Tension's saving grace was how shocking and suspenseful it was the whole way through. The ending made me feel really elated, which in the end boosted the rating up another half star. (I also didn't think the ending was completely out of left field either, but I still didn't see it coming) haha.

    I can't wait to watch Martyrs. I've got it on Blu-Ray at home, just haven't had the chance to sit down and see it at night. I'll review it ASAP :)