The French Slasher movie “Haute Tension” has been re-titled “Switchblade Romance” for its North American release. Why? I don’t know. I suppose movie execs are talentless hacks whether they are in France or America. Certainly the thought of needlessly renaming a film is something right up these particular subspecies’ alley. For the purpose of this review, the movie is “Haute Tension”, and that’s how it will stay.
“Haute Tension” opens with a young woman in a hospital recounting the events that led to her being at said hospital. Flashback to a few days earlier, as college chums Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) are on their way to stay with Alex’s parents in the countryside. The two plans to spend the time studying for upcoming tests, although it’s obvious Marie would rather study Alex instead. Later that night, a sociopath in yellow work overalls arrives at the house armed with a shaving razor and begins slaughtering the occupants. And oh yeah, before all this mayhem occurred, we saw our killer sitting in his truck having sex with a severed head.
Running at a scant 85 minutes, “Haute Tension” has no real original bone in its body (unless you consider the surprise twist at the end). Even before the bloodletting happens (at about the 25-minute mark), director Alexandre Aja goes a tad overboard with faux scary moments that never pays off. A simple scene of a boy sleeping in bed gets the atmospheric treatment for no particular reason. And you just know that the car won’t start when it’s most needed, despite the fact that it was running fine just a few seconds ago. After all, the only thing less reliable than Adult Authority in a Teen Slasher movie is a car.
The center of gravity for the film is Cecile De France (does her name mean “Cecile of France”?), who gives a convincing performance as the terrified Marie. When the killer first appears and claims Alex’s parents, Marie is paralyzed with fear. She manages to shake it off just long enough hide her presence in the guest room — albeit after panicking a whole lot. Her attempt to find a phone, and then a jack with which to plug the phone in, offers up the first hour’s most intense moments. Later, Marie finds herself at a late-night gas station as the killer stalks her inside the bathroom. Both sequences consist of long stalk moments where, by the end of the sequence, nothing is solved — but oh my was it intense while it was happening.
Maiwenn Le Besco (“The Fifth Element”) has less to do, and the character doesn’t make nearly the impression that France’s character did. Not that it’s Besco’s fault, since her character is chained up at one point and confined to the killer’s truck at another. She’s basically indisposed during much of the film. Speaking of trucks, the killer drives a beat-up truck that looks suspiciously like the Creeper’s beat-up road hog from “Jeepers Creepers”. As for the killer himself, he comes from the Michael Myers and Jason school of killing — a pure, unrelenting machine unconcern with getting caught. Although he’s obviously psychotic, we learn that the killer is driven by a singular — and understandable? — desire.
There’s a lot for fans of the genre to like about Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension”, mostly because the film puts its brief running time to great use. And while the conventions of the genre are present — including a fruitless conversation with Useless Adults over a telephone — it’s always a pleasure to see a movie that executes all the familiar elements this bloody well. For gorefiends, the movie will be a treat. The uncut version features some excellent killings, including a decapitation using a piece of furniture and some choice bodily mutilations with that handy razor. There are also a lot of impalings, stabbings, and a bat with attached barbwire goes to town on a face with spectacular results.
As for characterization, one shouldn’t expect too much. There’s almost no background on the characters, especially our heroine Marie. We know only the simplest things about her: she’s in college, she doesn’t have a boyfriend, and she has the hots for her friend. We also know that Alex doesn’t swing that way and seems oblivious to Marie’s attraction to her. Also, the members of Alex’s family shows up just long enough to get killed off. Heck, the family dog got more characterization, which is saying something about the script by Aja and Gregory Levasseur.
“Haute Tension” is what it is, and it does what it does very well. Cecile De France delivers a powerful performance despite all the limitations of her character. But since “Tension” is a Teen Slasher, it has its share of plot contrivances. A lot of questions will pop up as you watch the movie, things that the filmmakers count on answering with a Big Reveal. The film’s big plot twist doesn’t come completely out of left field, but it also doesn’t allow the audience to really guess at it beforehand either. That may seem like a cheat to most, myself included, but again — “Haute Tension” just does it so well, you’ll probably forgive it.
Alexandre Aja (director) / Alexandre Aja, Gr’gory Levasseur (screenplay)
CAST: C’cile De France …. Marie
MaÃ¯wenn Le Besco …. Alex
Philippe Nahon …. Le tueur
Franck Khalfoun …. Jimmy