Coinciding with the American ‘Torture Porn‘ movement in the early to mid-2000’s, the ‘New French Extremity’ subgenre, a term coined by scholar Alexandra West, re-acquainted horror fans with levels of gore and violence missing from theater screens since the early 1980’s. The New French Extremism was an eclectic collection of disparate films that were part exploitation film, part body horror. This wave of French horror produced several violent and transgressive films including Inside, Martyrs, Irreversible, Frontier(s), and Sheitan.
While High Tension was not the first of the New French Extremity, like Saw, it helped to popularize the film movement among North American horror fans. To some extent, Alexandre Aja’s shocking mix of sex and violence also helped coalesce the many divergent elements characterizing French extremism. High Tension enjoyed a moderate level of success in American and Canadian theaters, before developing a following on DVD and Blu-ray. Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of High Tension’s release and, in this edition of The Vault, I take a closer look at what has made Aja’s brutal film an enduring work of horror.
A Raw and Lean, if Not Unoriginal, Story
High Tension is a case in point that sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ideas. Based on a screenplay by Aja and Gregory Levasseur, which bares a strong resemblance to Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity, High Tension is pretty bare bones in terms of plot. College student Marie brings her roommate and friend, Alex, to her family’s isolated farmhouse to study. Later that night, a stranger (referred to as ‘The Killer’ in the credits) invades the home, murdering Marie’s family and abducting her. Sole survivor Alex hides in The Killer’s truck and spends the rest of the film trying to save her friend.
Aja wastes little time with the film’s basic set-up. You’re barely 15 minutes into High Tension before ‘The Killer’ arrives and the onscreen carnage ensues.
Aja wastes little time with the film’s basic set-up. You’re barely 15 minutes into High Tension before ‘The Killer’ arrives and the onscreen carnage ensues. From that point onward, High Tension delivers a non-stop cat-and-mouse game between Alex and ‘The Killer’. Aja and Levasseur may have cribbed a lot of their story from Koontz, but at least they translated the material into a lean, well-paced film. It’s about as close to a 90-minute roller coaster rise as you can get.
Aja Balances Brutal Violence with ‘High Tension’
In High Tension, Aja delivers what is arguably one of the better balancing acts between brutal violence and genuine suspense and tension in a horror film over the last 15 to 20 years. The onscreen brutality is definitely in keeping with the label, ‘New French Extremity.’ No editing techniques are used to minimize the impact of the violence. Several scenes were heavily cut for American theaters, but the unrated version leaves the legendary Giannetto De Rossi’s make-up effects intact.
For horror fans who love gore, High Tension delivers several memorably gruesome moments.
For horror fans who love gore, High Tension delivers several memorably gruesome moments. One character is eviscerated with a concrete saw, while another character is decapitated with a bookcase. Each of these death scenes is accompanied by buckets of spurting blood. De Rossi’s make-up effects for one throat slashing is among the more brutal on-screen depictions in recent memory. The accompanying sound effects are sure to make most viewers squirm in their seats.
These scenes of Grand Guignol violence are accompanied by a nihilistic atmosphere and well-crafted moments of genuine tension. Following the murder of Alex’s family, ‘The Killer’s” stalking of the house, looking for survivors, offers a hand-wringing moment that casts uncertainty about what may transpire. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre later crafts another excellent moment of suspense as Alex attempts to sneak from the truck to the inside of the gas station while ‘The Killer’ pumps gas.
As discussed above, High Tension is essentially a drawn out game of cat-and-mouse for its second half, with one suspenseful moment followed by another. Aja maintains ‘high’ levels of tension throughout most of the film, allowing High Tension to earn its title. The film is greatly assisted in this regard by Francois Eudes’ score that gives High Tension an almost nightmare-like quality.
A Twist Ending That You Will Hate or Embrace
(SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW)
While some critics complained about Aja’s copious amounts of blood and graphic violence, High Tension has typically divided horror fans with its twist ending. Hollywood and European cinema have both long loved Freudian psychology as narrative device for exploring the mind and neurosis. Aja’s last-minute wildcard twist reveals that Alex is in fact ‘The Killer’, delusional and obsessed with Marie. Slickly edited flashbacks show Alex murdering Marie’s family. It’s a Freudian slight of hand that equates Alex’s unrequited love for Marie with psychosis.
Needless to say, High Tension’s twist makes no sense logically. Even some quick mental accounting will find massive plot holes with the twist. Aside from its initial shock value, the twist does work emotionally for viewers willing to embrace it and immerse themselves in the Aja’s blood-soaked atmosphere. On a cognitive level, it’s nonsensical, but emotionally it serves to create a emotionally resonant climax and leaves viewers with a chilling final image. Some critics will rightly take issue with the Aja’s characterization of
High Tension Among the Best Horror Films of the Early 2000’s
During its relatively brief window, the ‘New French Extremity’ produced several truly visceral horror experiences. While Inside, and perhaps Ills (Them), arguably stand out as the best films that emerged from the subgenre, High Tension helped carve out the subgenre for North American fans. Its violence has maintained the power to shock, and its story and pacing create a tense atmosphere that withstands multiple viewings. For horror fans who can handle its extreme violence, High Tension has earned a place among the best horror films from the early 2000’s.