When you think of countries that make top of the line horror films, I normally think of places like Japan, Korea, or Italy. One of the last places you would expect to look is France, but recently France has been adopting this style of film making that is dubbed New French Extremity. I’ve reviewed a film a while back called Martyrs, which was my first exposure to New French Extremity. Perhaps even more popular than Martyrs is High Tension, a horror film by Alexandre Aja that is genuinely terrifying, gory, and unpredictable.
Alexia (Maïwenn) and Marie (Cècile De France) are in need of a vacation, so they head off to Alexia’s family’s farmhouse located far and away from the city so that they can get some quiet for their studies. Paradise soon finds it’s trouble when a mysterious killer (Philippe Nahon) breaks into their home and begins killing the entire family. Soon enough, it’s just down to Alexia and Marie, forcing Marie to take matters into her own hands and stop this killer before he has the chance to kill them.
Simple story, no doubt, but this is a slasher movie when you get right down to it and we all know exactly what we want when we turn one on. In the case of High Tension, I feel like I got a lot more than I was expecting. I heard a lot of good things about this movie, but I didn’t want to get myself all worked up over it and be disappointed when all was said and done, so I went in with a relatively blank slate. In the beginning, I was immediately impressed with the cinematography and the acting, especially for a movie of this genre. I didn’t even have a chance to get bored at this time, because Aja has such a way with building, for lack of a better word, tension.
When the bodies begin to fall and the gallons of blood begin to pour, the pressure really gets turned up a notch. As a fan of horror movies, I feel like I’ve seen a lot that the genre has to offer. Good thing Alexandre Aja and his writing partner, Grégory Levasseur, are also huge fans of the horror genre. This puts them in a very good position, because now they can pay homage to horror films (High Tension seems like the child of two ’70s exploitation horror films I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left) but at the same time it creates new and interesting situations to keep the viewer interested. The scenes of suspense are crafted in such a way that I found myself not breathing, both out of fear, but also so I wouldn’t give away the location of the hiding women. Yes, this movie is violent and yes, it is ridiculously gory, but hey, that’s New French Extremity for you.
With these new situations and ways of telling a pretty archetypal story, there are things that audiences may not like, and this one has gotten some attention over the years. Without spoiling anything, the ending of this movie does something that makes the audience all say, as if synchronized, “Wait…what the hell?” To some people this will be awesome and make rewatching it a lot more fun than it was the first time around. Others will find this to be the most frustrating and ridiculous thing that could possibly happen. In my opinion, it worked. There are a lot of small winks and clues throughout the entire thing, and in terms of narrative, there are ways of explaining a lot of things that might seem unexplainable. As much as I want to talk about it, I really don’t want to give the ending away.
High Tension will polarize a lot of people. I’m on the side of loving it. I really, really love this movie. It seems like there’s a lot of film makers who are afraid to really take their horror movies and turn up the terror to an 11, for the sake of getting a rating that will make the movie more accessible to wider audiences. Aja wasn’t afraid to go the extra mile. Granted, when it got to America (and being the wussiest country ever when it comes to movies) some of the scenes had to be toned down to get an R rating. If you get a hand on a copy of High Tension, make sure it’s the unrated copy, because you owe it to yourself to get the best possible version of this movie for maximum enjoyment and discomfort.