Blood-Bath and Beyond Alexandre Aja’s “High Tension”
by Suzanne Scott with responses from Michael Joshua Rowin and Brad Westcott
The imagery is as well worn as it is iconographic — a lone girl, running panting through the woods, battered and brutalized. She runs away from her attacker, eluding him, ultimately forced to confront him in a bloody (and typically problematic) ode to female empowerment born and bred in utter powerlessness. These are the tropes evoked in the opening moments of the French horror import “High Tension,” and that said, it seems more kismet than coincidence that co-writer and director Alexandre Aja was born in 1978, the same year that writer/director Meir Zarchi unleashed “I Spit On Your Grave.” The influence of that definitive cautionary tale about what happens to urban feminists who dare venture outside the city limits, along with Wes Craven‘s Seventies work, resonates throughout Aja’s film. And then, corrupted by the heinous po-mo desire to make like M. Night Shyamalan, Aja starts twisting away until he’s all but strangling his own refreshingly sparse narrative: An unfortunate third-act decision ultimately taints one’s appreciation of the prior two, particularly in terms of Aja’s dubious conclusive commentary on gender and sexuality.
If “High Tension” is any sort of filmic litmus test, the French don’t hate us so much as excel in pointing out both facets of our laudable cinematic past and our shameful present. Though the latter is achieved inadvertently, it nonetheless serves an educational function by calling attention to the manner in which Hollywood’s meddlesome desire to complicate perfectly sufficient narratives has permeated the global film market. Everything new is old, particularly with a cyclical genre like horror, and Aja (for the most part) seems refreshingly unconcerned with breaking new ground as he treads hallowed ones with loving attention to American film conventions.
Aside from the shabby-chic family chateau to which co-eds Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn) retreat for a little exam cramming, distributor Lions Gate Films has expunged anything resembling national identity or perspective. Subtitles only being deployed for naughty language (everyone knows that “skank” just rolls off the tongue in its French incarnation), the decision to dub was likely based on the film’s limited dialogue and, mercifully, isn’t as jarring as one might expect. This is a horror flick, after all, and Aja’s strengths lie in his ability to wield classical conventions without the typical reliance on ironic detachment (though it does speak to the film’s distinct timeless/placeless quality that the dubbing neither helps nor hinders the piece as a whole).
The nameless killer that snatches Alex and is pursued by a shell-shocked Marie over the course of one violent night is a greasy throwback to all the backwoods, working-class gas-jockey types that populated early slasher films, though his introduction adds a nice dash of true kink to the prior archetype’s one-note misogyny. First seen getting fellatio from a severed head he then unceremoniously ditches on the side of a picturesque country road, this appears to be a killer without motivation or discrimination (mothers, fathers, children, each are treated with the same apathetic cruelty). And how refreshing it is, in the age of endless psychobabble, to see a psycho capable of abhorrent behavior that plays like a mundane weekend hobby. In fact, Dr. Phil would likely have more to say about Marie’s affection for her bound-and-gagged bosom buddy than he would their attacker.
Also admirable for such a purist piece of horror cinema is Aja’s choice of DIY weaponry amongst the expected assortment of straight razors, axes, and the like. Given that this film cross-cuts a prolonged sequence of its Final Girl masturbating with the arrival of its killer, purity rightly gives way to ingenuity as the primary character trait of note. By the time we see Marie making like a demented Martha Stewart, constructing a makeshift mace out of a greenhouse nursery stake and barbed wire (trust me, it’s a good thing), it is clear that Aja is endeavoring to offer up an alternative to the recent influx of Japanese supernatural horror, which asks little of its passive heroines.
The act of reverse appropriation is certainly timely, as the American market is flooded with Eastern-inspired horror remakes, but it is ultimately neither as genuine in its attempts at homage nor as progressive in its attempts at modernization as it fancies itself. Relatively standard fare that could have marked a return to revolutionary Seventies scares instead concludes with a climax that is as implausible as it is stale. Given the knowledge that Aja’s next project is a Craven-approved adaptation of “The Hills Have Eyes,” “High Tension” can, at best, be seen as a primer for the director’s potential incitement of a stalker renaissance.
[ Suzanne Scott is a Reverse Shot staff writer. ]
By Michael Joshua Rowin
Described by director Alexandre Aja as an homage to the grindhouse slasher flicks he grew up loving, “High Tension” would seem to be a compendium, as well as economical reduction, of the horror genre down to bare essentials: the introductory set-up for the ensuing gore lasts less than a reel; every fake-out scare perfected in the last half century of film history is present and accounted for; the inevitable voyeurism scene, in which Eros is linked to Thanatos, gets a contemporary update by substituting lesbian chic for male perversion; all the suspense-building cliches (the face in the mirror, creaking doors, the isolated house in the boondocks, the not-quite-dead dead guy) play out without an ounce of shame, showy irony, or even much dialogue.
If there’s nary a new or challenging aspect about “High Tension” up to its ridiculous “twist,” that doesn’t mean that this shrill little throwback to B exploitation isn’t serviceable. Despite a suspiciously rushed, perfunctory delivery, “High Tension” at certain moments (e.g. the intense gas- station convenience store sequence) lives up to its title.
But then there’s that aforementioned “twist,” another shout-out to the grindhouse old school that should surprise absolutely no one. Unlike the devices used by the overrated “Fight Club” and the subtly brilliant “Swimming Pool” — where characters are revealed as imaginary, forcing us to reevaluate past events — “High Tension”‘s similar trick renders most of the action nonsensical in retrospect. Even if it plays upon phallo-centric conventions of the slasher film, “High Tension” insidiously places its unreciprocated female love story snugly within those observed, never transgressed boundaries. Perhaps 20 years ago “High Tension” would have been a radical genre reassessment. Compared to a more intelligent, subversive psychosexual genre deconstruction like “Mulholland Drive” or even a close relative like the first “Friday the 13th,” it’s a forgettable laugher.
[ Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon. ]
By Brad Westcott
Recently, film scholars and historians have convincingly connected the dots between the low-budget splatter cinema of the Seventies and the corporeal terror pumped nightly into living rooms courtesy of American involvement in Vietnam. Now, some 30 years later, while more bloody conflict rages overseas and once again the “Q” word hangs in the air, what can contemporary gore-hounds claim as cinematic counterpart? For the most part the answer has been a slew of slick, dumb “re-imaginings” of those very same Seventies titles.
In that peculiarly French tradition of reappraising and revitalizing American genre cinema (the whole Jerry Lewis thing notwithstanding), this week’s gruesome import — call it “freedom fright”? — actually gives Seventies slasher flick aficionados something to squirm about. “High Tension” proves the most aptly titled film of the year; once its simple set up — two college girls, a family, a farmhouse, and a psychopathic killer — begins to uncoil, the result is a visceral assault akin to being pinned down and slapped silly for 80 minutes.
“Tension” harks back to the good old days when if you wanted to steal something, you stole it outright, changing its name and everything. Co-writer/director Alexandre Aja manipulates the medium and his sources flawlessly, eschewing cutesy/clever self-reference for straightforward terror and inventive homage. “Tension” riffs on the idea of horror’s androgynous “final girl” in the form of Cécile de France’s tomboyish yet sexualized heroine Marie. Used to be that a sure way to get killed in one of these movies was to smoke a little pot and screw. “Tension”‘s killer, more befitting our times, seems summoned instead by a character pleasuring herself to the tune of her personal mp3 player.
No doubt internet message boards are already abuzz, some whining about the film’s cheap-shot twist ending. Yes, it’s a cheat, rendering one of the film’s most disturbing early images — handled with ‘Hooperesque’ matter-of-factness — impossible. Yet one final wrong turn cannot undo the film’s preceding merit. Perhaps the truly horrifying twist to this cause célèbre is the news of Aja’s next project: a remake of Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977).
[ Brad Westcott is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot. ]