Haute Tension

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As Judge Dredd almost said: “I am the saw!”

This Thanksgiving viewing – that may say more about our house than anything – was a suggestion by our teen daughter, which is somewhere between a incentive and a put-off. Normally, she won’t view anything with subtitles for more than two minutes; but her tastes are closer to Anchorman or The Notebook than French slasher pics. Reviews I read in advance were similarly split: either enthusiastic hype (“arguably the best horror movie since The Blair Witch Project” wrote James Berardinelli), or disparaging critiques which condemn it for a cheap twist (“Treats me like a jackass that will swallow anything”, says a writer at eFilmCritic.com).

The truth, as usual, lurks between: a warmed-over rehash of genre cliches, it’s done with sufficient verve to be tolerable. And while the surprise holes the plot sub-waterline, it is, at least, an attempt to modify conventions largely unchanged since Leatherface revved up the saw back in 1975: outsiders + loony locals = carnage. In this case, Marie (de France) and Alex (Maïwenn) head for a study weekend to the farm where Marie’s parents live. However, a single-minded psychopath (Nahon) kills Ma & Pa in spectacularly gory fashion – in the unrated version, at least – then kidnaps Alex, leaving Marie her sole hope of survival. The madman always seems one step ahead, in a way reminiscent of The Hitcher, though the killer here is scuzzy sleazeball rather than charismatic prankster. The cat-and-mouse chase leads deep into the remote countryside, before a final confrontation and the twist, which I have to say wasn’t a surprise. My first guess was a post-orgasm fantasy by Marie; it’s not (except tangentially, perhaps), and my second stab proved right.

But does it work? In hindsight, probably not; it needs too much cheating of viewpoints for everything before to become plausible. Much of the rest, however, is fairly effective; the lack of backstory works for the killer, and the deaths are great, in-your-face, nasty pieces of slaughter. Director Aja doesn’t really have much of an idea about tension, thinking that the absence of action, combined with ominous music, is sufficient to this end. Yet there is talent and potential present, and you can see why he has signed to a remake of the similarly-themed The Hills Have Eyes. Until then, this post-post-feminist slasher pic is a failure, albeit an interesting one.

Dir: Alexandre Aja
Star: Cécile De France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon
a.k.a. High Tension

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