When people say they like horror movies, they usually mean "scary" movies or "thrillers": a rollercoaster ride. True horror films are different. There’s nothing safe about them, and the images can hang with you for life. They are about repugnance. They pin you to the board like an insect in a collection.
High Tension is a French film from 2003 that is now released in the States, dubbed into English. Lion’s Gate Films, the Canadian company that released the film, is the world’s largest independent. They were built largely by acquiring horror movies that no one else wanted, like the ineluctable Open Water and the overrated Saw .
Marie, played by Cécile de France, is a college student. She’s visiting Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), a girlfriend, at the house of Alex’s parents. To reach the house, you have to cut through a cornfield and drive five kilometers down a tractor trail. It’s coal black at night.
Marie is in the upstairs bedroom, lost in erotic fantasies about Alex. An old pickup pulls up to the house. A man in a mechanic’s uniform and a ball cap, with a bloated, hard gut, comes to the door, and begins implacably slaughtering the whole family – including a four year-old boy. This scene has some power, owing a debt to In Cold Blood .
But is this what you thought you would see when you bought a ticket to a movie called High Tension ? The title is a bait-and-switch, symptomatic of what’s wrong here. "High Revulsion" would better have prepared you for the scene in the house.
For what purpose have I been asked to witness the murder of a child? In Cold Blood meant something, as did another recent horror film, The Passion of the Christ . High Tension devolves into a clichéd cat and mouse slasher. Marie chases the killer to free Alex, who has been kidnapped. She huddles in the last bathroom stall while the killer checks the others, one by one? You’ve got to be kidding me. I say devolves, because suspense is of a lower order than horror. A final plot twist is so dumb, it torpedoes any lingering credibility. By the time we get to the ending, an homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , there is a little heat, but we no longer feel it.
It’s not everyone’s cup of Sturm und Drang, but looking into the abyss deepens the experience of being alive. This path in art is the sublime: overwhelming you with awe and pity at the terrible power of the universe. When something like High Tension seems to have conviction, but then turns out to be cynical, amateur hour dreck, I feel betrayed — like Virgil guided me half way across the river Styx, then flipped me the bird, jumped overboard, and left me standing there.
High Tension has been playing at Showplace West, but you should check the listings to see if it’s still there. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.