Haute Tension review by The Grim Ringler

Lord knows I love my horror movies, which I think is obvious by some of the reviews I do, and nothing gets me more excited than reading good nerd notes about a foreign horror film that may come to the states. I first learned about Haute Tension while cruising the movie nerd sites and it immediately piqued my interest. A movie that was freaking people out and disturbing them, AND it was coming to the states at some point. I am THERE. There is a different feel to foreign horror films, which, like their comedies, are so alien to their American counterparts that you really have to build an appreciation of them. Foreign horror doesn’t usually go in for jokes, or pop culture references, or kindness. What you get are often brutal, dark films that deal with the shadows of the human heart, and these are not exactly the kinds of films we in America long to see. But sometimes a walk on the dark side isn’t so bad, now is it?

Two friends, Marie and Alex, are heading to Alex’s parent’s house in the farmlands of France to get some studying done. The farmhouse is isolated and is like an island in the midst of a world of cornrows that seem to go on forever. Hidden in that idyllic, peaceful setting though is a monster no one can imagine. We see him, his truck a gray thing that looks as if it shouldn’t be, parked near the farm, dropping a woman’s head out of the truck window before moving on. As everyone sleeps the night of Alex and Marie’s arrival, the killer strikes, pulling his truck slowly up the drive to the house and ringing the doorbell anxiously. As the father comes down to see who it is, the dog barking madly, the killer strikes, slashing the father across the face with his razor and making his way into the house. As the killer quickly dispatches the father, Marie, seeing all this from her guest room, hides, frozen with fear and uncertain what to do. The killer works through the family – mother, son, and finally Alex, and it is when he reaches Alex that Marie begins to realize she needs to act. Unable to free Alex from the chains he has placed her in, Marie ends up trapped in the killer’s van with Alex as he leaves the farmhouse and makes his way back to his own home. There is one chance for escape on their trip though and Marie takes it as the killer stops at a gas station to re-fuel, but her escape blows up in her face when the killer, seeming to sense her presence, kills the station attendant and searches for her. She manages to elude him but in so doing she is separated from Alex and the police are no help when she calls them. Stealing the dead attendant’s car and the gun he had stashed under the counter, she follows the killer deep into the dark of the night and the woods of the area, hoping he’ll lead her to his home so she can rescue her friend. The tables are turned though when the killer somehow gets his truck behind her car and finally gets the upper hand on her, knocking her off the road and forcing her to crash the car. And now, injured and without a weapon or vehicle, she must fight for her life as well as her friends as the killer hunts her down, his straight razor out, his flashlight trained on finding her.

Sadly, to read a description of Haute Tension, you would think of one of a million made for television potboilers or any number of straight to video baddies that are long on misogyny and short on scares. That is far from the case here. What we have here is a classic exercise in mood and, well, tension, the director keeping things very tightly drawn and pulling things tighter as more and more about the situation is revealed, until the noose is tight enough to strangle the viewer. There is a real sense of danger and urgency to the film, which almost feels as if it was shot real time because it is so low key. The murders are not drawn out or embellished, and there are uneasy moments here where you really feel as if the director is going too far. Dancing around the rape/revenge sub-genre, there is an uneasy tension as well as you know what the killer wants Alex for, you know what he intends to do to and with her, and the film becomes a matter of whether or not Marie can stop him before he has a chance to do these things. So for much of the film, from just before the killings when Marie is fantasizing before falling asleep and masturbating, to the dark intentions of the killer, there is a thick cloud of sexual tension which makes things all the more horrible. The killer is a machine with a single intent and purpose and one target – Alex – and nothing will stop him. Whoever gets in his way is but one more obstacle. And from the look of his rear view mirror, Alex is but the latest victim in many. There are also a lot of dark undercurrents to this film that I cannot unfortunately get into without revealing issues in the movie that are better experienced first hand. Though I will say nothing is quite what it seems here.

I love the atmosphere in this film, as well as the way the director filmed things. What is first a peaceful and serene setting becomes menacing and deadly as the very isolation the girls had come to the country for becomes their enemy when the killer appears, as if a ghost. The use of music over dialogue is also a very effective choice. Very little is said when the killer comes, and the long silences raise the stakes of the film as you are waiting for it to be broken by screams. There are no cheap scares in this film, something I can completely appreciate in a movie these days. The one sequence where I was certain that there’d be a jump-scare didn’t even pay off, which was wonderful. The acting is also very strong, the lead that plays Marie being the standout as hers was not an easy part to play. She doesn’t get to be the hero for much of the film, her character instead hiding and cowering as the killer kills her friend’s family and all she can do is listen, uncertain what to do. The killer in this film is a golem, his face generally not even centered in the frame when he is filmed. He is like a savage bear, his hulking body moving slowly as it kills, not seeming to be in a hurry but not seeming to take great pleasure in the kills. It is just something that must be done.

The biggest issue people will have in it lies in the nature of the ending and the difference in reality, truth, and the dark country in between. Things are very blurry in this film and it will take some time to figure out what exactly has happened. And some people will loathe that. Hell, many will. But I really thought that the scares and twists this film takes were genuinely satisfying. Yes, there are some themes and moments that seem familiar, but it is the way the director handles these well-worn moments, which helps the film retain its strength and power. This is not an average slasher film and these are not dumb women willing to be victims. They are fighters who must play victim at times in able to create an opportunity to fight back. But all told, this is a confusing film, when seen in retrospect, but I feel that if people want to figure things out, if they take the time to think about the movie instead of allowing themselves to get frustrated or angry at some of the twists, that they too will find this a satisfying, though not perfect, film.

The version of the film I saw was the subtitled cut that was taken from the two-disc Korean DVD release. The film is very violent but on further investigation I found out that some scenes has been cut out but are on the second disc, which is entirely in French. Why they did this I can’t fathom, but hey, what can ya do? I plan on checking to see how much was cut out but from what I read, it’s gore and the film works without it. I got this film at a comic convention but it will be released in January of 2005 by Lion’s Gate Films and is said to be released uncut as an NC-17. The film was shot in 2.35:1 and that framing suits the film well, as does a fine 5.1 mix. And hey, imagine that, the subs are good. I saw a trailer for the film on the disc which shows that they’ve dubbed it already, so I would imagine that’s the version we shall get. I hope not, but from what I heard, the dubbing was ok and shouldn’t hurt the movie too much.

I really liked this film and am happy as a bee that it shall see release in the states. It’s a very effective, very taut thriller and has more than a few gruesome, chilling moments for the horror fans out there. This film also follows the trend of many horror films of late in that it’s a bit of a throwback to the seventies in that there are no punches pulled here and no happy, pat ending. This is a very dark, very cruel film, but one with a very dark heart. I hope word spreads about this great little movie because lord knows we need more of these and less of the silly horror we’ve gotten for so long.

8 out of 10 Jackasses
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