Haute tension

Haute tensionSynopsis: Marie and Alexia are classmates and best friends. Hoping to prepare for their college exams in peace and quiet, they decide to spend a weekend in the country at Alexia’s parents’ secluded farmhouse. But in the dead of night, a stranger knocks on the front door. And with the first swing of his knife, the girls’ idyllic weekend turns into an endless night of horror…

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Haute tension 7.5

eyelights: the director’s restraint. the tension-filled score.
eyesores: the twist. the unreliable clues.

‘Haute tension’ is one of those films that’s littered my neck of the woods; everywhere I went, there it was. Based on the DVD artwork, which suggested something along the lines of ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel’, I just wasn’t interested: the problem with the so-called “torture-porn” genre is that it lacks subtlety, eschewing mood for gratuitous violence.

It’s not that I’m against on-screen violence, either; like many of my generation, I was virtually bred on gun violence, developing a certain cinematic bloodlust in my teens. But I also recognize that mood is the greatest asset of a horror film. Sometimes what one doesn’t see is what is the scariest. The psychological almost always trumps the visceral. ‘The Shining’, for instance, is mostly mood.

Anyway, I kept hearing about ‘Haute tension’ being a game-changer, or at least a landmark, in modern horror (along with ‘Martyrs’, which I doubt I’ll see), falling into a category called the New French Extremity movement. I can’t say that it’s a genre I’m especially curious about, but when I got a chance to pick this DVD up for a dollar or two, I decided to give it a chance.

I’m glad that I did: ‘Haute tension’ succeeds precisely because writer-director Alexandre Aja understood the need to balance the two extremes of mood and aggression. He’s no great writer (Mirrors‘ is proof of that), but at least he got the basics right.

‘Haute tension’ is the story of a brutal home invasion: Marie, who has been invited to her friend Alexia’s countryside home, finds herself stuck inside the house while an unknown assailant breaks into the house, slaughters all of Alexia’s family and kidnaps Alexia. Unable to stop the massacre, and with no contact to the outside world, Marie is tasked with trying to rescue her friend.

It’s not a complex story and it’s nothing novel, but ‘Haute tension’ is effective because of everyone’s commitment to making the picture look and feel real: the actors are all solid, the director takes his time establishing the characters and their dynamics, their portrayal is realistic and even the violence, as nasty and gory as it gets, steers clear of the gratuitousness its peers fall into.

That’s not to say that the picture doesn’t indulge from time to time; this picture is absolutely soaked in blood. But there are only a few victims and they’re early on: the film isn’t so much about giving audiences grisly eye candy as it is about building tension. In fact, I was surprised by the director decision of putting some of the brutality off camera, leaving us only with the sounds of what was taking place.

Which reminds me, François-Eudes Chanfrault’s score is worth noting. While I”m not sure that it was entirely appropriate, in that it constantly created an ominous mood even at times when it was out of place, it was instrumental (pun intended) in creating the picture’s tense mood. Although it was unrelenting with its scratchy, distorted sounds, it certainly helped to make one feel uncomfortable, to create disquiet throughout.

Unfortunately, ‘Haute tension’ trips up in the logic department. While most of the story makes some sort of sense, one murder was totally impossible to achieve by human hands, a gas station attendant doesn’t seem to register the fact that our killer’s covered in blood, and the killer doesn’t seem to hear any of the noise that Marie is making in the house while he,s hunting everyone down; he’s oblivious to her.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Of course, that last part makes total sense when one considers the picture’s eventual twist; of course he would ignore the noises that she is “making”.

But it goes beyond that:

  • At the gas station, how did the killer get an axe, unseen? Just how oblivious was the gas station attendant?
  • There’s no way that this small girl was able to do the damage that she did. It was already sometimes dubious for the hefty man to do (especially the beheading with a cabinet), but it’s impossible for this girl to do. There’s just no way.
  • Where does the truck fit in? If she drove up with her friend, where and when did she get the truck?
  • If the killer doesn’t actually exist, where do the scenes of the killer driving around fit in? And what about that first scene with the head? How does that work exactly, aside from gratuitous shock value?

But it gets worse. ‘Haute tension’ is patently dishonest with its audience:

In the beginning, we are shown Marie seeking help from a man driving by in his car. Except that it turns out that it was Alex. So we were shown the wrong images on purpose, to throw us off the trail. Except that they were the wrong images. It wasn’t even a question of lighting or some trick of the tail. It was pure lies.

Basicallly, as far as I’m concerned, it’s simply not enough to say that the girl is crazy, that it was all in her head. You also have to explain how it makes sense from an outsider’s perspective. The actions that were committed, the story versus the reality, they all have to make sense in “real” life.

But it doesn’t. Hardly.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

It turns out that Alexandre Aja, who also co-wrote the script, originally wanted to make two movies out of this story – from two different perspectives. One strictly from Marie’s perspective, and one that wasn’t at all tainted by her perception of things. But he was talked into making one movie by producer Luc Besson. Which might account for the sloppy writing, given that he had condense everything.

What a missed opportunity! Honestly, I would have adored seeing the two versions of the same story. That would have been great. And it might have been more cohesive and coherent to boot! Oh well…

All this to say that I would have given ‘Haute tension’ a slightly higher rating if not for the film’s many lapses in logic and plot gaps. And yet, for some reason, I don’t feel that cheated. Disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t tie up the loose ends properly, yes, but not ripped off. Others may not feel the way that I do, though. In fact, there are a number of reviews that protest the plot holes that you could “drive a truck through.”

I understand, but I still feel that it’s an effective horror picture. A highly intense one.

Story: 7.5
Acting: 7.5
Production: 7.5

Chills: 7.5
Gore: 8.0
Violence: 7.0

Date of viewing: October 9, 2013

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