If you’ve been reading the popular cinema press recently, you’ll be aware that they’re be only too keen to tell you that horror is undergoing a serious revival at the moment. In terms of pure box office they’re not wrong, but recent pretenders such as Wrong Turn, Texas Chainsaw, Freddy vs. Jason or Cabin Fever have only really partly delivered on their promises. Entertaining though some of them may have been, they’re relatively half-hearted, superficial, empty or too jokey – pale imitations of the genuine slasher heydays of the 70s & early 80s. It says something that the finest horror efforts of recent years – such as the exquisite May – are films which for the most part would be just as at home in the drama section of your local video store. What the genre has been longing for is a Jeepers Creepers which doesn’t wimp out after 10 minutes, a brutally vicious & intelligent slice of pure old fashioned fright whose exuberantly cathartic bloodletting is a ferocious match for Argento at his best. Haute Tension is here to satisfy that need.
The set-up is simplicity itself. Marie (de France) & Alex (le Bosco) are two young students who travel down to Alex’s rural French Farmhouse in order to study. But the first night a hulking psychopath (Gaspar Noe’s regular collaborator Philippe Nahon) turns up, & proceeds to brutally butcher Alex’s family, & take Alex captive in his rusting hulk of a van. It’s up to Marie to somehow give chase & try to help Alex escape from his merciless & nihilistic grip.
Throughout the film, Aja displays a remarkable control, & pure knack for understanding the mechanics of suspense. His sure control over the set pieces never falters, & whilst his camera movements are perhaps not so exuberant as Argento, he is always aware of how best to move the camera to build the tension, also picking out some inventive angles to maintain interest. He also displays a real sense of playfulness, although this is not the kind of playfulness we’ve come to expect from the genre of late – no silly Scream gags or stoner jokes here. Instead, this is an almost Hitchcockian playfulness, although Hitchcock was never this dementedly sadistic – check out the moment with the lighter for example. He is also clearly very genre literate, & constantly plays with our expectations about the clichés. An early excursion into a cornfield almost provokes groans, but not only is it effective it also pays off slightly unexpectedly. The lame old row of shut toilet doors being opened one by one is just one of the clichés re-energised here (not to mention a bathroom scene straight out of Maniac), as Aja uses our genre knowledge to play with us. Just like the film’s sick psycho, there’s the real sense that not only is Aja royally fucking us up, he’s having the time of his life doing it. It’s a sense I’ve not really had since Argento in his heyday, & I loved it.
And then of course, there’s the twist. You see, it’s not actually nearly as simple & straightforward as the above synopsis suggests & if you play close attention there’s much more going on beneath the surface. This leads to a twist that is easily written off as a silly gimmick which leads to many absurd plot holes. However, not unlike Fight Club, it’s a twist which forces you to reassess everything else you’ve seen & it’s only when you know about it that you can truly understand the film. I was expecting a twist, & so was looking for it, & had no problems working out what it was. Instead of being just a daft closing gag, it’s actually the key to opening the film up & finding a rich & intelligent movie masquerading as a straightforward slasher. It also adds a surprising & oddly affecting heart to the film – but before you think that it’s wimped out on us, that emotional content does come armed with an absurdly large & vicious power tool, which gets put to terrific use in one of the film’s best scenes.
In fact, as I noted above, this film is a startlingly aggressive & full-blooded slice of murderous mayhem. Even though the body count actually isn’t particularly high, each & every one counts for maximum. Thankfully avoiding crappy CG, the film features the practical effects work of Giannetto de Rossi, who made his name working with Fulci on such films as Don’t Torture a Duckling & The Beyond, and it’s great to see him coming back to the genre to show all those half-assed newbie’s precisely how it should be done. The killings in this film are relentlessly vicious, brutal & extreme, & de Rossi’s excellent work is never less than convincing.
Working with cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, Aja gives the film a captivating & appropriately dingy & grubby look, subtly tinged with blue hues creating an oppressive atmosphere where intense, sickening hyper violence threatens to erupt at any moment. A terrific pulsing score – stylistically reminiscent at times of Angelo Badalamenti’s excellent work for David Lynch - by Francois Eudes subtly maintains the mood with a rare skill & flair, & his fine work is aided by the excellent use of Muse’s stonking guitar-flattening hit song “New Born”.
One thing we’re used to seeing in horror films (particularly grubby slasher movies like this) is performances that are rather below par, & this is something that we as fans tend to gloss over. Haute Tension however, doesn’t suffer from this. De France delivers a subtle, convincing & compelling performance as Marie – she is in many ways the heart of the film & its success is due in no small part to her stunning turn. Maiwenn, who goes to pieces superbly, ably matches her, & whilst Nahon has little more to do than stalk around threateningly, he is so good at doing that you just know someone’s going to be calling him up to play Jason or Michael in the next sequel.
It’s at about this point of the review that I usually start looking around for the things I didn’t like. But I’ve virtually run out of things to say. Haute Tension is a complex & intelligent horror, deceptively hiding behind the front of a brutally intense slasher flick. Beautiful, genuinely scary & utterly remorseless in its psychopathic intensity, Haute Tension is one of the most satisfying exercises in pure horror for far too long. Horror movie of the year? Horror movie of the decade, more like it. Unmissable.
Haute Tension arrives uncut on UK DVD in R2/PAL format courtesy of Optimum Home Entertainment, masquerading under the title Switchblade Romance. The anamorphic 2.35:1 picture is good & strong – not the best I’ve seen but nothing to actively complain about either, whilst the French Dolby 5.1 audio is satisfyingly meaty with great use of the surrounds.
For extras, Optimum have put together a solid package, starting with a UK exclusive audio commentary from Aja, de France, & critic Jamie Graham, which is full of interest & well worth listening to. Next, there are interviews with Philippe Nahon, Cecile de France, Maiwenn, & Giannetto de Rossi who all have interesting things to say, even if it mostly looks like material for an EPK. I was worried that that EPK would turn out to be the “Making of” on this disc, but thankfully this is an above average piece, with some excellent behind the scenes stuff running over half an hour. The package is completed by a selection of trailers for this (in subtitled French & dubbed English versions) & other Optimum releases. Whilst some of the films power is undeniably lost on the small screen, this is a great package of a modern classic, which really recommends itself.