HAUTE TENSION (the direct translation is 'high tension'), is a term that neatly sums up this masterful, near perfect slice of Euro slasher.
The film hooks from the start when it opens with a woman, Marie (Cécile De France), bloody and bruised, stumbling through a forest. Despite her evident injuries she manages to get to a road and flag down a passing car; screaming, "Help me!", to the astonished looking driver.
The action then seems to flashback to Marie sleeping in a car as it races through the sunny French countryside. The car is driven by Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), Marie's college friend - the two are traveling to Alex's parent's isolated farmhouse so they can get some peace and quiet to study. Marie wakes, and tells Alex about a strange dream she just had where she said it felt that she was curiously being stalked by herself. Like most dreams, this is quickly forgotten as the duo break into song to while away the hot journey.
Meanwhile, near Alex's parent's house a van is parked by a cornfield. Inside an unseen man is seemingly having oral sex with a woman. When he's finished he tosses out a severed head and drives off!
After a brief stop near a cornfield (where Alex attempts to scare Marie), the pair reach the farmhouse and Marie is briefly introduced to Alex's parents (Andrei Finti and Oana Pellea) and her little brother. Tired, they soon get off to bed. Marie is put in the slightly spooky attic room, but finds she cannot sleep despite a languid session of self abuse. She goes out in the moonlight garden and inadvertently spies Alex showering in an upstairs room. Eventually she goes back to her own room and attempts to get some shut eye.
Soon, the van glimpsed near the cornfield slowly trundles up to the farmhouse, and its occupant marches to the front door and knocks on it. Alex's father goes downstairs and opens the door, but suddenly comes staggering back as he is hit full in the face with a claw hammer. Reeling and bloody, he falls to the floor and attempts to drag himself away from his assailant. The stranger enters the house and quickly grabs the man, jamming his head between the banisters so that he is completely immobilised. In a terrifyingly cool and calculated manner, the stranger turns around a chest of draws so that the end faces his helpless victim. He pushes it towards him with great force, bloodily decapitating him in a geyser of gore that splashes out in waves over the wooden floor.
Initially, Marie is the only other occupant of the house to have been disturbed by the commotion downstairs. Gingerly, she descends to investigate. On surveying the bloodbath she quickly discovers that there is a murderous presence in the house and flees back up to her room. Realising she can't escape, and with the killer - switchblade in hand - coming upstairs to find other victims, she does her best to hide and disguise the fact that anyone had been in the room. Luckily, the killer doesn't find her and seems to have been tricked into thinking the room was empty. Marie, however, is seemingly left with the dilemma of whether she should try and escape or stay behind to try and warn her friend and the remainder of her family that a killer is stalking their house. Things get worse when the killer kidnaps Alex in his van, and a near hysterical Marie has no choice but to follow in a desperate effort to free her friend ...
HAUTE TESNION is an example of those rarest of horror films: one that excels in both grue and (quite literally) knife edge suspense. Alexandre Aja's new slasher movie is as brutal depiction of visceral violence as you'll ever find (it's easy to see why Wes Carven was impressed enough to offer Aja the director's chair on the upcoming remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES). Perhaps, not since the hey day of the old maestro of gore, Lucio 'stick 'em in the eye' Fulci, has the Grand Guignol been so lovingly, and unflinchingly recreated. Which is not surprising given that Fulci's old special effects whizz Giannetto De Rossi provides the impressively bloody gags. Aja is also to be commended for not indulging in the bane of so many horror films since SCREAM (1996), the painfully self-referential humour (not to say that HAUTE TENSION doesn't take a few well aimed nods at several classic of the subgenre (TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), HALLOWEEN (1978) and MANIAC (1980) are obvious references), it just doesn't feel the need to wink every time it does so). The bloody violence is supported by a slender dramatic framework (essentially there's not much more to the story than cat and mouse hysterics, at least until the end), but this serves the movie well and keeps it going like the liberally oiled shock machine that it is.
Like any good horror / suspense movie HAUTE TENSION is one of those films where you realise (almost too late) that you you've been holding your breath for almost the whole running time. You genuinely feel for Marie as she desperately tries to rescue her friend and stay one step ahead of the killer (Philippe Nahon - who is like a cross between Michael Myers and fat Elvis!), my heart was in my throat throughout, but especially in the unbelievably tense scenes at a near deserted petrol station. The proceedings are ably supported by an eerily ambient soundtrack, and the excellent use of a song by the band Muse.
Of course, any review of HAUTE TENSION wouldn't be complete without a mention of the film's killer twist (which some love but most seem to hate). I wouldn't believe in spoiling it for those who haven't seen the film yet, so if you want to know what my thoughts are then click here [allow popup].
Even the appalling dubbing (the bane of so many non English speaking genre films) can't detract from the film's visceral power - but, thankfully, there's very little dialogue after the first 30 minutes, or so. Ultimately, HAUTE TENSION is a rocking return to old school horror - an exhilirating endurance test of a movie, obviously made by people who genuinely love the genre (and for once that combination doesn't suck). It grabs you by the balls from the off and doesn't let go until way after the memorably over-the-top blood soaked, power tool fueled frenzy of a climax.
female:2 / male:4
1) Female's decapitated head seen
2) Male decapitated with tea chest!
3) Female has throat slit with cut-throat razor
4) Male killed with shotgun
5) Male whacked in the chest with axe
6) Male eviscerated with buzzsaw