French Lesbians With Chain Saws—What’s Not to Love? As it Turns Out, a Whole Lot.
With its central thesis of lesbian desire that leads directly to the slaughter of the nuclear family, High Tension is nothing more admirable than a slasher film that James Dobson can call his own. Cobbled together by young French writer/director Alexandre Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur from bits of the most easily replicable aspects of early John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper, it’s a one-film ascension to the highest realms of the truly despicable.
Tension’s opening demonstrates that subtlety is nowhere in its mission statement as a thuggish repairman (Philippe Nahon) rapes and then discards a decapitated girl-head on a country road. Cut to Marie (Cécile De France), a shyly butch college girl, and her sexually active (read: sluttish) friend Alex (Maïwenn), traipsing off to visit Alex’s pastoral family home, complete with a hearty dad, sweet mom, and adorable tyke.
After furtively watching Alex take a long shower, Marie retires to bed, where she then masturbates to the accompaniment of a cheery UB40 track, the chorus of which repeats, “There’s one thing you should know, you’re just another girl.” A more succinct illustration of erotic self-loathing, we’ve never seen.
Apparently, the heady musk of Marie’s desperate jill-off attracts the Head-Fuck Killer, who invades the house, decapitates the father, throat-slashes Mom, and shotguns the kid. He rapes and tortures Alex in the back of his tatty truck, then sets off for further mayhem with Marie in hot pursuit—of Alex, it turns out, which leads to an insanely stupid plot twist. Suffice it to say, Marie is not one of the genre’s archetypal androgynous, ultimately triumphant good-girl heroines, and we get to see her use an abruptly acquired chain saw on an innocent passerby’s body, drenching both girls in man-blood, after which Marie forces Alex at saw-point to say “I love you.” (The film’s original U.S. title was the literally inaccurate but essentially more on-the-money Switchblade Romance.)
Taken on its own demerits, Aja’s filmmaking is slick without ever showing he has even the most remote concept of how thrillers or horror films work. For the most part, he’s disinterested in the use of complex compositions that artfully mislead the eye, preferring instead cheap shock edits and distracting, lingering shots of his FX crew’s impressive gore tableaux. He mistakes a lack of humor for seriousness and, in a magnificently ludicrous music cue, uses the Radiohead-meets-Queen bombast of Muse’s “New Born” to accompany a theoretically thrilling/gruesome chase scene. (Imagine “Bohemian Rhapsody” backing up a scene from Halloween for the effect.)
More annoying, we’re never given a clue as to what the real story might have been. Not that logic is one of horror’s salient elements: The Black Cat, The Birds, Suspiria, a goodly portion of the genre’s classics, in fact, get by just fine with iffy story progressions propped up by skilled, relentless stressing of universal psychic pressure points. But High Tension is grating without ever really being scary, dealing in nothing more than a desire to shock in the meanest fashion available, mistaking cruelty for edginess, while banking on its audience’s assumed distrust of female sexuality. Wondering what motivated the plot’s finer points is a hollow pursuit; the filmmakers don’t care, so why should you?
That distributor Lion’s Gate is cashing in on the current horror boom demonstrates an inarguably dark business savvy. But just as Gate’s distribution of Takashi Miike’s Audition and the surface-similar Saw invigorated the genre, the wide release lavished on High Tension’s retrogressive, hateful-hearted lousiness is a woeful misreading of the zeitgeist that plays into the cheapest criticisms of horror film. Along with other studios’ endless regurgitation of Japanese thriller tropes, the milking of a long-barren ’70s style, and endless irrelevant remakes, this film almost argues for an end to the current horror cycle.