Haute Tension (aka High Tension, aka Switchblade Romance) DVD Review
Written by DamnationDoorMat
DVD released by Dae Gyund DVD
Directed by Alexandre Aja
Written by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur
2003, Region 0 (NTSC), 86 Minutes, Not rated
Cécile De France as Marie
Maïwenn Le Besco as Alex
Philippe Nahon as Le tueur (The Killer)
Two female students, Marie and Alex, set off to Alex's parent's secluded homestead in the country to relax and study. Come nightfall, Hell pulls up at the front door. Alex is now bound and gagged, taken off, with Marie alluding the intruder. Can she save her friend's life in time? Or is everything all that it seems...
Rue Morgue, Issue 37, Jan./Feb. 2004:
RM: Have you recently seen a North American horror movie that has impressed you?
Alexandre Aja: [Dead air.]
This film is truly a clean breath of air to the generally dire and stale state of horror cinema today. There has been quite a few false and half starts to a return to pure unmitigated hardcore terror. Admittedly there may been a number of solid yet slow-burning character studies in the guise of 'horror' over the past few years. We have gone through many promises with baited breath only to be underwhelmed by the finished product. Haute Tension is that official return horror fans have been pining over for far too long.
It isn't exactly a 'fresh' breath though. It does lend it's existence to classic suspense thrillers of the past and rollercoaster horror of the '70s. By not resorting to easy in-jokes and, a long forgotten attribute in genre films nowadays, respecting the material that preceded it, it manages to stand on it's own proudly. It also takes refreshing steps to respect the audience it caters to. The answers aren't easy, it doesn't ever try to be a giant baby food jar feeding teaspoon-size dollops to the wide-eyed idiots in the audience who can't even read the street signs on the way home from the theater. Many current horror films have a slick sheen but shy away from taking that extra step into that boundary of past territory that yields what makes horror so fantastic to fans. It wants to offer a few chair-jumpers and mildly grotesque imagery along the way but doesn't want to go as far as to give the viewer a lasting, challenging fear. Haute Tension, on the other hand, is absolutely relentless in it's delivery, incredibly slick, and thoroughly accomplished. It doesn't carry the clichéd baggage of the 'slasher' subgenre it resembles (or what it's usually pegged as). There are no hidden/masked killers, stupid but ever so attractive teens who have sex every fifteen minutes just to queue up the killing, or picturesque locales. The title says it perfectly, it builds tension very rapidly in the first reel and doesn't stop in the slightest for such fleeting, unimportant-to-the-genre aspects as levity or off-handed chuckles at the expense of the driving force.
Everything about it is bluntly straight-to-the-point. The violence is ugly, everyone suffers tremendously, meeting disturbingly raw fates. I've read articles about this film mentioning large numbers of walkouts during screenings, that's exactly the desired affect. I find a certain admiration in that, this kind of horror was never meant to be nice and padded. It's meant to confront the audience with they're own very realistic fears, this isn't ghosts or time travel, this is a psycho slaughtering loved ones, for maximum effect the subject matter requires a bright, naked light. The characters that are being held over the flame aren't necessarily going to be able to powerfully outwit or regroup, they're stuck in this situation, just as the viewer should be. Fortunately, special make-up effects are handled completely by Lucio Fulci favored Giannetto De Rossi. They are always superb and only increase the troubling nature of the proceedings. Best of all, CG is non-existent, making the nightmare all the more tangible. There are 'shock' scares but they're genuine and the film doesn't automatically default to them to mask other flaws. If there was a subtitle attached, it should read - Haute tension: Not dancing around the fact.
Cinematography and production design are uniformly solid. Very deep, penetrating blacks and an overall 'uncleanliness' enrobe the settings. Amateur director Aja has a keen eye for strange yet balanced composition and while nothing revolutionary, serves the intent well. The score provided, by another relative newcomer François Eudes, is a real shining point. It's only purpose is to illustrate and enhance the action on screen. Clear understanding is exhibited that this type of film requires complex orchestration due to the audience hanging on every detail filtering from the screen. There is no heavy metal blarring at inappropriate times or sappy 'resolution' strings. It's reminiscent of a Argento/Goblin collaboration. A layered brew of odd chords mixed with constant, sometimes overbearing beats, capped with well placed amibient effects.
Editing is very clean and tight. There is no fluffy character exposition, it drives a stake right into the viewer's heart and slowly taps it further in as the minutes tick passed. No needless sequences with characters who are tagged for slaughter which lead to annoying and unfocused moments. It bares the focus exactly on what matters and never bogs in extraneous weavings. It's all kept to a bare minimum and certainly more effective in it's execution for it.
The cast is the bond that holds it all together. Cécile De France as Marie produces a soft vulnerability that you think may spell doom at first but when she's put to the test, can go toe-to-toe. Maïwenn Le Besco as Alex is at first impression, a standard abductee in distress suffering from intense mania. After you re-visit the film though her performance holds many of the keys to the film's puzzling resolution. 65-year-old Philippe Nahon as La tueur is extremely menacing, a stuffed brute of a man who projects a somber, cunning stone-faced tone exuding a 'walking wall'-type of persona. He is fully aware of his surroundings and knows how to extract his wants from them with vicious strength.
A note about the film's conclusion, with no spoilers. Much has been made over the resolution to the story negating it's entire reason for being. Yes, the ending does arrive hard, fast, and it's quite overwhelming. When you view the film a second time much of the seemingly impossible-to-answer questions are foretold from the very beginning in the dialogue and character interplay. You have to also keep in mind the killer's internal motivations and drives. Keeping certain things in mind fills out the rough spots intelligently.
Video and Audio:
Haute Tension is presented in it's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The disc is non-anamorphic but aside from that it's a blemish free, detailed affair. The film was intentionally darkened quite abit and the stock used is sensitive to grain but there are no compression artifacts to be found.Presented in French Dolby 5.1 and 2.0. The power of the soundtrack is well represented and while not wall-shaking, it gets the point across adequately. The English subtitles are excellent. White, nicely sized, well explained and with almost no (I only counted 3) grammar mistakes.
Not that much sadly. Some Korean text-only cast and crew paragraphs along with the English dubbed (awful) Switchblade Romance trailer. Nicely animated menus back with songs from the soundtrack.
I can't really say enough, I was blown away. It kept me on the literal edge of my seat and for the first time in a long time from a 'modern' horror film, I felt the very emotions the characters where experiencing, multiple times. I actually felt my heart pumping faster and at certain points I had to consciously think to blink. To dismiss this as the 'same old' is a glaring oversight, it takes it's pedigree and hones it to damn near perfection. The DVD isn't the best presentation but the film soars far above any of it's flaws, and yes, even the slight cuts. A visceral and eviscerating film that truly confirms the hope that quality, rollicking horror can be produced in the 21st century without sacrificing the dignity of the past.