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Recently, it has been in vogue to revisit the classic horror films of the 1970s. Dawn of the Dead saw a decent remake, along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which wasn’t only remade directly, but its themes recycled in a variety of film fare including House of 1000 Corpses and Wrong Turn. Then there was the ‘70s horror catch-all that was Cabin Fever. The problem is that none of these films recreated the gritty, analogue fear produced by the era’s actual masterworks. Sure, Cabin Fever had its moments, and Dawn of the Dead remake had a smashing opening reel, but the feelings of the post-Vietnam America that spawned such nihilism was most definitely lacking. A late entrée in the continuing recycle (Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses follow up, The Devil’s Rejects is expected this July) is the French-made Haute Tension. Soon to be released in American cinemas in an edited and dubbed version under the title High Tension, Haute Tension is almost brutal enough to have been made during the titular era.

Haute Tension begins in familiar 70’s terror territory: good looking college kids driving from the city to the countryside for some much deserved R and R. Marie and Alex are on their way to Alex’s childhood home for a break from hectic school life. Marie is a little apprehensive about the trip due to her urban upbringing. Will there be anything fun to do out in the middle of nowhere? She expresses her concerns to her good friend, who assures her that she'll enjoy herself. They arrive at the farmhouse late; Alex’s mother and brother are both already asleep. Alex's father answers the door, is introduced to Marie, and they exchange friendly hellos. Marie is ushered to the guest room, an unused bedroom at the top of the house. Everyone is off to bed, and Marie left alone in the creepy, creaking attic.

She decides to listen to some music to calm herself down. As she relaxes, a beat-up utility van pulls up to the front door, and a mysterious giant of a man (France’s all purpose heavy Philippe Nahon of Irreversible and I Stand Alone ‘fame’) incessantly begins to ring the doorbell. Marie watches from her window as Alex’s father answers the door, and is struck in the head with a hammer for his troubles. Then the beast enters Alex’s home and brutally murders her sleeping family, while the helpless Marie looks on.

Though it doesn’t produce all the same quaint discomforts of a real 70s horror film, Haute Tension is probably the closest you’re going to get to authenticity in this decade. There is a certain realism to the proceedings, but it's not made in quite the same cinema verite style as Last House on the Left or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Director Alexandre Aja uses too many high-tech filmmaking techniques, and the camera work is too subjective for Haute Tension to be considered successful as a strict homage. However, as an engrossing, if not unique horror film, Haute Tension is pretty darn sharp.

Though the murdered characters are not three-dimensional enough for the audience to really care for them, their deaths are still quite unsettling, making their impact stronger, as this is a brand of bloody murder most of us wouldn't wish on even our worst enemies. The murders are not played for laughs, nor are the gore effects ever over exposed, both unfortunate signatures of post-80s horror movies, which were in turn made fun of in the post modern, ironic horror films of the late 90s. Like Straw Dogs or Deliverance, the basic plot consists of survival, at any cost. It is a situation the audience can quickly involve themselves in emotionally.

What's in the closet? Why it's a metaphore for the main character's sexuality!
Haute Tension is most effective, ironically enough, at keeping its tension levels high. Less effective scary movies have a tendency to introduce comedic elements as relief, but Aja allows the film to build a solid foundation of fear instead. The ups and downs between scares and comic relief moments create a roller coaster effect with a viewing audience, and are a tried and true formula. When the audience is not given peaks and valleys, the filmmakers run the risk of numbing them to the horror. Haute Tension, like Kubrick’s The Shinning, or Arronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, is more like a deep plunge. There are few moments of relief once the action starts, but the tension does not become numbing. As someone who’s viewed hundreds of horror films and basically memorized the appropriate beats used for roller coaster style scares, this approach to fear was most welcome. It’s not that I’m a particularly brave individual; I’ve just been over-exposed. It is always thrilling when a film manages to get under my particularly jaded skin.

However, at the height (or in this case, depth) of the tension, when the piano wires should begin to snap, flying violently into our faces, there is a problem. Let it be said that a single misstep can, in fact, drop a film from achieving instant-classic status. Up until this single ‘problem’, Haute Tension has all the makings of a minor masterpiece, and thus the ‘problem’ becomes ever more devastating to this particular horror geek. The 'problem' I speak of is the films final act plot twist. It’s not that the twist itself is a bad one, but more that it’s poorly executed. The twist is introduced to the audience before the main characters, and would have been a million times more effective if the audience and characters could have figured it out together.

When I first saw Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, Angel Heart, and The Sixth Sense, I found myself reeling from the same revelations as the characters on screen at the same time. In some cases I even missed what I had just been shown, because my expectations had been so shattered that my mind had dismissed the revelation as poppy-cock. Viscerally, this would have been the ideal way to reveal this movie’s particularly changing twist. The scene following the twist’s reveal could have been utterly horrifying, but instead the audience is given too much information, too fast, and the remainder of the film suffers. The twist also hurts from the film’s overall nature, as viewers are likely to remember it for its twist ending and not for the previous eighty minutes. There is the possibility that upon further viewings, with the twist in mind from the start, that Haute Tension will work on a different level. Personally speaking, I would have prefered a down and dirty survival horror movie.

It’s interesting to note that in interviews Aja has alluded that the twist ending had been imposed by ghost producer Luc Besson. This could explain the plot holes the twist creates, as it was perhaps not part of the original script.

As I mentioned earlier, another thing Aja does right, which goes a long way in maintaining the suspense, is he doesn’t stop the film every time there is a gore effect. Veteran Giannetto De Rossi, who oversaw make-up effects on several Lucio Fulci productions, was in charge of the satchels of splatter in Haute Tension. While Aja isn’t the genre master Fulci was (yet), he has learned from some of the maestro’s mistakes. Fulci’s greatest accomplishments ran parallel to his greatest shortcomings. He tended to focus so hard and so long on De Rossi’s effects that they often lost their punch. Though he’ll always be remembered as the ‘Godfather of Gore’, it’s easy to forget that it was between the gory scenes is where Fulci really separated himself from the other spaghetti nightmare makers of his generation. Here, Aja seldom focuses squarely on any single effect or appliance (with the exception of one poorly executed throat slashing). In turn, the nasty bits hit harder, and don’t ruin the breakneck pacing. According to Aja, De Rossi worked alone on the film, which in itself is most impressive.

While it falls short from being the pure adrenaline rush I wanted it to be, Haute Tension is still a stand out horror flick, probably the best I’ve seen in a while (with the exception of Old Boy, which depending on one’s definition could be considered a horror film). It’s not so ironic that Aja’s toted next project is a remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, yet another classic of the lo-fi, uncompromising 70s. Based on the material presented here, I think he’s the man for the job. Here’s to hoping he gets it right.

This review pertains to the uncut, Hong Kong release of Haute Tension. Like most Hong Kong DVDs, it isn’t the best on the market. However, this is a more than adequate transfer, especially considering the spirit of the material. The image tends to be a bit on the grainy and dark side, but hey, who really wants to watch a rough and tumble horror flick in grain-free brightness? There are a few fleeting shots where the image’s darkness makes it a little too hard to see the action, but for the most part the flaws are in keeping with the film’s style. Unlike some budget priced Hong Kong releases, this one doesn’t seem to have suffered from too much digital compression. Haute Tension is a very brown film, but when colours become prevalent (like the blue tiles in the rest stop bathroom) they are usually quite purposefully saturated. The saturation works well, and the colours are pleasantly bright.

One blunt object, coming to your head
Nothing kills the mood of a horrifying scene faster than the presence of insipid Nu-Metal. Personally, I find Nu-Metal about as scary as a sleepy kitten. Thank God the soundtrack to Haute Tension contains only four lyrical songs, none of which are particularly insipid. One song plays early in the films opening car ride as a kind of reverse mood setter, and the Muse song used during the midfilm car chase is effective in its way. The majority of the music is more akin to Goblin than Limp Biscuit, and in most cases would probably be considered noise rather than text book definition music. The filmmakers liberally borrow sound techniques from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Argento’s Suspiria, which is rightfully in keeping with the Aja's general goal of approximating the 70s horror vibe. Unsettling grinding and screaming industrial noises leak loudly from the speakers, assisting in the process of knotting the viewer's stomach into submission. The DVD’s French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very effective, though the surround channels rarely get much of a workout. Most of the directional effects are allocated to the front speakers. There is also a French DTS 5.1 track, which to these ears is identical to the Dolby Digital one. For the ideal viewing experience, I’d recommend watching either track very loud.

I hope that after its dubbed, edited North American release, Haute Tension gets a nice uncut region one release. This disc is, fortunately, uncut, but does not have much in the way of supplemental features, however you get what you pay for, and the price is right. The only features are a trailer and two brief interviews with the lead actresses. Cecile De France, who plays the tough girl Marie, is very pleasant and gives quite a bit of background information on the film’s production and the development of her particular character. Maiween De Besco, who plays the victimized girl Alex, and who viewers may remember as the eight foot tall, blue, alien diva in The 5th Element, is at little less personable. Her interview is comparable to one with Icelandic pop princess Bjork; kind of off topic, and more than a little odd. The interviews are in French, but are presented with optional English subtitles.

Wait, a twist?
Haute Tension is a fabulous film, despite one massive, bottomless pit of a flaw. It’s obviously not meant for everyone, and is very serious in its intention to shock its audience. Individuals who like horror films to be fun rides should probably stay away. This is not a fun movie, and there is little glee to be found in its gory excesses. Individuals who, like me, are looking for a more gruelling and challenging horror film that will actually affect their jaded sensibilities need look no further. This particular DVD presentation is sparse on the extras, but features a solid video and audio presentation. It is also the most reasonably priced of any edition available, especially to North American audiences. I recommend it highly.

You can buy this title for HK $85.00 from top retailer DDDHouse.