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Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance/ High Tension) (2003)

Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance/ High Tension) (2003)
Cast: Cecile de France, Maiwenn, Phillip Nahon
Director: Alexandre Aja
Nutshell: easily the most ferociously tense slasher-terror ride in years - a classic!

"Packed with anxiety, Haute Tension upsets and unsettles in equal measure - bloody scary" Total Film (4 stars)

"a sick and slick little movie that will get under your skin and stay there for weeks" Empire (4 stars)

 

The director Alexander Aja when introducing his Pyscho-slasher-shocker to the audience at the Sitges Film Festival 2003 mentioned that his movie was basically a story about love and obsession – well, that is certainly one of the things it turned out to be but he didn’t warn us that it was going to be the most outrageous exercise in white knuckle tension since Halloween not to mention the most visually stylish Euro-slasher film ever!

The film begins shots of a horribly wounded young woman in a hospital and a voice over that begins to explain “what happened”. The titles, beautifully crafted – cold and threatening like the headlights of a truck roll spliced with shots of the same young woman, mortally wounded lurching through a forest. She intercepts a car before waking up from her “super bizarre” dream in the car with her best friend.

There is the lull before the storm we all sense is just around the corner as two young women head out to a countryside farmhouse for pre-exam studying for a few weeks. While the girls drive home without a care in the world the director cuts to a shot of country girls’ family excitedly awaiting her arrival in the farmhouse area….Mother’s putting up the laundry, Daddy is working on the PC while little Tom is dressed like a Cowboy to impress his sister and is chasing the family dog around the fields – it’s a picture of short lived tranquility as the first sign of danger appears as the camera pans to a rusty old truck parked nearby straight out of Jeepers Creepers…some sexual activity clearly going on within. Just as the audience senses something is not quite right, director Alexandra Aja strikes home with a screamer of a shock that had viewers gasping in equal proportions of shock and delight! This initial shock is brilliantly timed and suitably grisly to whet the appetite for what’s set to follow, and suddenly the audience is fully aware that there is extreme danger in the air though the characters on screen remain blissfully unaware.

There is a tension filled interlude in the cornfield as the old Hitchcockian ploy is used to perfection by Aja – we, the viewers can sense the danger but those on screen are totally unaware. The girls reach home, a farmyard in the wilderness, and proceed to unwind. There is a Texas Chainsaw homage shot of Marie rocking on a swing outside as her friend showers inside while the air is drenched with tension with the audience expecting the dreaded truck to pull up at any moment…..and its not long before it does letting loose the most horrific mayhem. The scenes of carnage in the house are spectacularly handled and while the gore is plentiful, the most unbearable aspect is the incredibly taut tension that tightens snapping point.

The director has his audience completely gripped, holding their breath collectively along with the traumatized Marie. The Psycho takes off with the apple of his eye entangled in chains along with Marie in wild pursuit. To reveal anymore about the plot would be sinful as hopefully at least in Europe the film will get a proper theatrical release.

The movie races along at a rollicking pace and is crafted with an astonishingly assured hand for a man who must have been just 25 when he worked on it. Haute Tension is the most unrelentingly terrifying experience since John Carpenter’s Halloween and is fitting homage to the greatest slasher film of them all. However sadly the film falls frustratingly short of being the masterpiece it ought to have been due to the twist ending that feels as though it “cheats” its audience – an unpardonable sin in the opinion of many. So while the film builds deliciously and unrelentingly to a blood-drenched finale, the audience is sent reeling as if a rug had been quite rudely pulled from beneath them and just as they stagger to comprehend what they’ve just been shown, the film comes to an end leaving watchers floundering to regain a sense of balance.

So, Haute Tension sadly comes just a little bit undone as the twist it stuns its audience with is a fun idea but simply a bit too much to swallow and ultimately just a bit of a cop out. Very sad considering that 90% of the film is otherwise a most brilliant exercise in tension building with some scenes that compare with Halloween – a film that so clearly inspired Haute Tension along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Though praise should be duly heaped on Alexandre Aja for his mastery and Cecile De France for an exceptional performance there are other elements that deserve at least equal fanfare if not more. Ultimately the most memorable features of the film are the stunning sound design and background music which evokes memories of John Carpenter at his best.

The score (by Francois Eudes) is full of menacing; atmospheric tracks as well as Carpenter-ish choppy rhythms that pound away full of menace as danger boils over to bloody mayhem. In another scene when Marie is searching for Alex in the cornfields, the camera tracks her urgently and the sound menaces her from a million directions creating levels of unbearable tension. The sound design and the sound mix are crucial to the atmosphere of urgency and tension that the film manages to attain. The other aspect of the film that is key to the film’s success (and despite the let-down of an ending, the film still has to be considered one of the best slasher films ever!) is the magnificent, virtually wordless performance of Phillipe Nahon on whose effectiveness the film is built. It is his burly figure that exudes menace and horror so effectively and thus creates the urgency and dread upon which the film thrives.

Director Aja has cleverly played by the primary rules of a “good slasher” movie by never allowing the audience to catch a glimpse of the eyes of the marauding Nahon who without wearing a rubber mask or a Hockey mask exudes absolute terror. Another factor is the Gianetto de Rossi’s spectacular gore effects which though truly suitably horrible is perhaps a little overdone and should have perhaps have been edited so the audience couldn’t get a lingering look. The music, the sound design along with the camera work and editing are the unsung elements crucial to the films ability to built tension and terror.

Most satisfyingly, finally here is a horror film that truly manages to achieve its target which is to scare the living daylights out of its audience while keeping them on the edge of their seats till the very last shot. Haute Tension is the most stunning debut by a director that one can recall in this genre – to have such mastery over his subject the very first time around is no less than astounding. Tragic and so frustrating it will forever remain that the scriptwriters couldn’t devise a more satisfying and fitting finale to the brilliance that passes before.

Quite simply, this film is an exhilarating and utterly nerve-shredding experience; easily the most ferociously tense terror ride in 20 odd years – and despite its flaws, the first classic horror film of the millennium!

The movie won some of the big awards at the Sitges festival including Best Director for Alexandre Aja, Best Actress for Cecile De France and Best Gore Effects. The film was also awarded the Melies award for the Best Horror film of the year for 2003 - a joint award decided by the entire community of Fantastic Film Festivals.

Swami Ji's Verdicts: 93% - a ferociously tense terror ride

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