Thursday, August 16, 2012

High Tension

Few movies have angrily disappointed me as much as the 2003 French import by director Alexandre Aja, High Tension. There are plenty of movies that for whatever reason I didn't enjoy or felt were lacking, but at least they had the decency to be consistently underwhelming throughout their running length, but with High Tension, my frustration is worse because what sinks the film literally occurs in the last 10 minutes. The final twist is such a letdown, so completely miscalculated, it ruins what was otherwise a very effective, unpredictable, gruesome thriller that I might have called my favorite horror movie of the last decade, but as is, I get ticked off just thinking about it.

Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maiwenn) are college roommates driving out to the farmhouse of Alex's family to study for finals. Marie clearly has some kind lesbian attraction for Alex, but her friend never picks up on it. That night, a redneck trucker (Phillipe Nahon) arrives at the house and gruesomely begins terrorizing and murdering the family and kidnapping Alex, leaving it to Marie to mount a rescue.

For the first hour or so, High Tension is grueling, intense, and straightforward. The kills are some of the goriest and shocking I've even seen in a horror movie: a man's head is crammed between the railings of a staircase and crushed with a cabinet, a woman's throat is cut and she takes several minutes to bleed to death, and in a bloodless yet disquieting scene, a young child is shot and killed off-screen as he tries to run away. Taboos are smashed left and right. The movie would have fit nicely in the early 1970s Savage Cinema cycle alongside such titles as Deliverance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Straw Dogs. The violence is not glamorized or cleaned up to be exciting in anyway. People die horribly and painfully. A family out in the middle of nowhere gets brutalized by a killer with no history, no reason, and no motive other than a deranged obsession with Alex. It's a frightening and simple conceit to realize just how vulnerable innocent people can be to someone so monstrous.

The trucker embodies just about every fear of men a woman might have: a fat, dirty, grotesque, perverted, and murderous male who treats women as objects. His first scene shows him using a decapitated head to pleasure himself in his truck. Yet, he is efficient in his killings, and Aja draws out the suspense effectively, particularly in one scene when Marie tries to hide evidence of her stay just before he searches the guest room, and Nahon gives a wonderfully realized and creepy performance.

Sadly, everything is negated near the end with a lame twist. SPOILERS: It is revealed that Marie is really the killer, and the trucker is her split personality. This just creates so many plot holes and inconsistencies: how can Marie be in two places at once, where did the truck come from, who's driving the car?. The movie does not play fair, deliberately showing events that did not happen as presented and then pulling the rug out from the viewer. How can I be invested in anything shown to me if it's only going to be revealed as false? It would have been no worse to reveal it had all been a dream.

I'm not sure how to recommend this. Horror fans will admire the first hour's intensity and shocks while mainstream audiences will be repulsed, but the ending is infuriating. As a viewer, to witness such atrocities and then find out they didn't happen the way they were shown is insulting, and the film's tautness collapses under pretentiousness and incoherence. All I can do is sigh.

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