High Tension

  High Tension
"Are those Ho Ho's? Sweet!"

© 2005, Lions Gate Films
All Rights Reserved

On a road trip crossing the expansive French countryside, Marie (Cecile De France, "Around the World in 80 Days") and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco, the blue opera diva from "The Fifth Element") stop by Alex's family farm for a break. During their first night, a merciless killer (Philippe Nahon, "Irreversible") breaks in and slaughters the family, kidnapping Alex in the process. Marie escapes, and in her efforts to rescue Alex, she finds this madman will stop at nothing to quench his insatiable thirst for blood.

"High Tension" (IMDb listing) comes from the 20-something school of male filmmakers who want to recapture that pivotal time in their lives (late '70s through the early '80s) when horror films were something more than a time-waster in a mall megaplex. French filmmaker Alexandre Aja attempts to put the "good heavens!" back into the genre with "High Tension," a roaring splatter flick that effectively makes up for all the pain and suffering caused by the recent wave of faux-horror films the 12 year-olds love these days.

"Tension" takes its thematic cue from Tobe Hooper's classic chiller, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." With young women in peril, and a strange, unstoppable killer on the loose decimating everything in his path, "Tension" doesn't win any awards for originality. But blowing minds with ingenuity doesn't appear to the goal of the film. What "Tension" does so well is take known quantities and freshen them up with a pinch of love and reverence, and a hearty portion of sharp execution. Aja shoots his film cleanly and directly, without covering his gore bonanza with edits or artistically reprehensible shock jumps. He keeps his ideas straightforward, trusting the horrifying nature of the story to lead the way.

Also in the film's favor is its relentless appetite for gore and violence (the U.S. cut has been trimmed by a minute to avoid an NC-17 rating), which increases in intensity as the film rolls out. Depravity and hopelessness are such vital components of the genre, and to see them reinstated in "Tension," with its menagerie of vicious throat-slittings, child murders, and tool-shed weapons of choice, is a delight. "Tension" is a disturbing film, and not one for the faint of heart, which immediately makes it stand out from the soft-peddled "spooky" mood of your average "Grudge" or "Saw." The latter especially, which now looks like a Sunny Delight commercial compared to "Tension."

With only about 20 minutes of dialog in the 82-minute feature, and a strong, simple attention given to pace and graphic brutality, "High Tension" appears on its way to becoming an instant genre classic. That is, until the ending arrives.

Oh my, the ending.

While he didn't invent the twist ending, M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "The Village") made this style of climax all the rage over the last six years, forcing movie after movie to include walloping endings just to appease the tastes of the few. After spending 75 minutes purely and efficiently delivering on genre promises that were long forgotten, Aja gets it in his head that "Tension" needs to close with a whimper and not a bang. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that "Tension" ends catastrophically, and not even originally, for any die-hard thriller viewer will smell the aroma of deja vu right away. What should rightfully be just a wildly entertaining, effortless, down and dirty splatter film suddenly aspires to be an investigation into a broken mind. Aja tosses his film from the mountaintop into the toilet in one scripted moment. An opportunity for an unsophisticated masterpiece thrown to the wolves.

My advice? Much like 2003's "Identity," just calmly get up at the 75-minute mark and exit the theater. The remaining seven minutes will just ruin the experience.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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