If you like your horror bloody, tense, and visceral, but you haven’t seen High Tension, do yourself a favor. Stop reading, and watch it immediately.
But, wait. You say you hate twist endings? Well, you may want to read on.
Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (Haute Tension if you’re French, Switchblade Romance if you’re nasty) hit theaters in France in 2003, but wasn’t released in the U S of A until 2005. It was controversial for a couple of reasons, the first being its depictions of graphic violence. The film focuses on two college friends, Marie (Cecile de France) and Alexia (Maiwenn). The two travel to Alexia’s family home, which is a large, secluded farmhouse. During their first night there, a killer breaks into the home, kills Alexia’s family in horrific fashion, and kidnaps her. Marie hides out and chases the killer in an attempt to rescue her friend. Or, so we think.
And that brings us to controversy number two. Without giving too much away, the film ends in a major twist, leaving the viewer to question everything that came before. Because of this, High Tension is somewhat of a 'love it or hate it' experience. As is often the case when a director pulls the rug out from under us, some people feel cheated by the climax. And this particular twist was shocking in the early 2000s, but there have been so many movies that have attempted to do something similar since that it’s become a bit of a horror cliche.
Something most horror fans won’t complain about is the pre-twist construction of what we see on-screen. Director Aja has been one of horror’s most solid filmmakers of the last decade or so with The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D, and Horns (he also served as writer and producer on the excellent Maniac remake). His talent is easy to see in this early work; the camera movement, pacing, and acting belie the film’s low budget. Practical effects by Giannetto De Rossi - who previously worked on Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery - are top-notch. Aja doesn’t cut away from the violence much, and we are subjected to some brutal scenes in typical French horror fashion.
High Tension is perfect for fans who say, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!” when revisiting their favorites from decades past. It’s a love letter to the gory, grimy celluloid treats of the ‘70s and ‘80s. To truly enjoy the entire experience, some suspension of belief is involved, and you’re likely to be unhappy if you’re the type of filmgoer bothered by plot holes. For most horror fans, though, this one is the real deal and one of the best of the last fifteen years.