Haute Tension

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This recent French horror film has been creating quite a stir amongst genre fans in the last few weeks, thanks to its early release on DVD in Korea, with English subtitles (as 'X Tension').

Unfortunately this release is cut, but nevertheless, this is one seriously nasty little film. It's yet another of those cases where it's difficult to say too much about the plot without giving things away, but a relatively spoiler-free synopsis would be as follows:

Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (Maïwenn) are two young girls with exams fast approaching. They decide to return to Alex's family household in the country for some peace and quiet in which to revise. Just before they arrive, we see a man (Philippe Nahon) apparently receiving oral sex in a scruffy old truck. This isn't quite what it seems though, as becomes obvious when he drops a severed head out of the window and drives off

The girls arrive home late in the evening and soon Alex retires to bed, whilst Marie heads outside for a last cigarette. She sees Alex showering through a window in the house and goes to bed herself, puts on some head phones and starts masturbating. This is interrupted when she hears someone banging on the door downstairs. Yep, you guessed it; it's the guy from the truck we saw earlier. Alex's dad answers the door only to be stabbed with a razor. The killer enters and proceeds to decapitate him in a very unusual manner, then the family dog gets it. By this point, Marie is trying to find somewhere to hide, and there follows a long, tense scene in which the killer looks round her room. Next he deals with Alex's mother, then enters Alex's room. She hasn't heard anything as she was wearing ear plugs (trains pass the house noisily), and wakes to find the killer's knife at her throat. Marie tries to phone for help, but is interrupted when Alex's little brother makes a run for it into the corn fields, soon followed by the killer with a shotgun. Marie tries to free Alex, who has been bound with chains, but cannot – instead she goes looking for a weapon and finds a kitchen knife. The killer takes Alex out to his truck and puts her in the back, Marie jumps in with her planning to stab the killer when he comes back round. However, he just slams the door and drives off, with both girls in the back. The next chance to escape comes when he stops at a gas station, but all is not what it seems

There are two main reasons that this film is going to generate a lot of discussion. One is the completely bizarre twist that comes ten minutes from the end – no matter how much you think about it, it really makes no sense whatsoever, but it somehow manages to be very effective anyway (and I guessed it just before it was revealed, which is unusual for me). The other reason is that this is a true return to those g(l)ory days when horror films were extremely bloody and unpleasant, just for the fun of it. The murders are – even in the cut version available on DVD – very graphic and unpleasant, and the final act sees the most intense and bloody chainsaw scene since the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). There is a further reason that true horror fans will be interested in seeing this film however, and one which I was amazed hasn't generated more discussion – the person behind this ultra-gory FX work is none other than the master of Italian gore, Giannetto de Rossi. De Rossi's last genre work of note was for Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY way back in 1981, though he has continued to work in Hollywood productions since and did the makeup FX for Fabrizio de Angelis' loopy KILLER CROCODILE (1989). HAUTE TENSION marks his return to the genre, and it's clear that he relishes the chance to go completely overboard with blood and guts in a way that Fulci himself would most certainly approve of.

There are other good things about HAUTE TENSION too – it is very successful in creating and sustaining an extremely tense and claustrophobic atmosphere. It's beautifully shot, using the same ultra-wide photography that Gaspar Noe used to such good effect in CARNÉ (1991) and SEUL CONTRE TOUS (1998). And, speaking of those films, the horse butcher himself, Philippe Nahon, plays the murderer with gusto, making him a believable and very frightening bogeyman type of figure. Maïwenn's role is pretty limited, thanks to her being tied up and gagged for most of the film, but Cécile de France is excellent in a very demanding role. There's also a good score which mixes modern pop music and incidental music reminiscent of Hooper's 'musique concréte' for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. There are many plot holes and clichés, and the film gleefully steals from (and references) many other genre classics (and not-so-classics – does the killer's truck remind you of anything?!), not to mention seemingly borrowing its plot from Dean R Koontz's novel Intensity, but it does so with such exuberance and skill that it's very easy to forgive any faults it may have.

All-in-all, HAUTE TENSION is easily the best foreign language horror film not to come out of Asia that I've seen in many years. Definitely the sort of film to watch on your own in the dark on a stormy night, it's guaranteed to make you cringe and wince, not to mention have you on the edge of your seat throughout, and leave you open-mouthed when the twist is revealed. I look forward to an uncut DVD release in the near future

Reviewed by Tom Foster