Monday, 11 July 2011

Review : Haute Tension (2003)




Alexandre Aja
Two college friends, Marie and Alexa, encounter loads of trouble (and blood) while on vacation at Alexa's parents' country home when a mysterious killer invades their quiet getaway. 

I was recently asked by a reader if I could review HAUTE TENSION for them, and it struck me as a great idea. Not only would it be nice to re-watch this hardcore classic, but it would afford me a chance at last to voice some issues I have with the film. Before I go into detail, I should mention that HAUTE TENSION is a film that holds a particularly special place in my heart. For me, it was a key moment in cinema, for a number of reasons. Its a film I love to this day, and a film that in some ways infuriates me. Its complicated, but stick with me and I'll try and explain.

Now, the most important aspect of this film is that it introduced the world to two very important players in current era of horror. One of these is Director, Alex Aja, who has since go on to helm a number of American remakes, all of which have been great successes financially and critically, and without Aja having ever sold out his vision to the mainstream. His last film, PIRANHA 3D, was one of the most entertaining horrors of recent years. Unadulterated cheese, naked female forms as far as the eye can see, and most importantly, an insane amount of gore for a mainstream film. Aja has risen to become one of horrors most reliable artists, and it all started here.

Where PIRANHA is pure tongue in cheek zaniness, HAUTE TENSION is quite the opposite. This film opens with some very disturbing necrophilic imagery, and it only gets darker and more twisted from there. I don't think theres ever been a film more aptly titled. It really is a tense ride and Aja's instinct for suspense is damned impressive. After the initial character setups, the movie quickly revs up to full throttle, as our main characters are pitched into a battle for survival that's often punctuated by acts of extreme violence. Hell, by then end of the film both girls are completely covered in red. Its a cat and mouse battle that, for some, will go to places they never expected. Its damn fun and Aja directs it with cold precision, turning the suspense up to eleven from the very start, and its obvious from the first kill that this director isn't fucking around. Like many of the films that have come since, the violence here feels ENTIRELY real. Its gory as hell, but like its younger siblings, INSIDE and MARTYRS, you'll have seen much more explicit gore before, but rarely seen any as convincing, at least for the time of its making. Its since been eclipsed by the films I mentioned among others, but it stands tall as the trailblazer in a new wave of Gallic cinema. HAUTE TENSION was the point when the world sat up and payed attention to what the French were all about. And since that glorious time, whenever American or British horror has felt slightly restrained, we've always had our lunatic french cousins to rely on to deliver the goods. For my money, some of the best horror ever made has come from France in the following years. They continue to be the leading light in fearless genre cinema.

We're eight years on since Aja hit the radar, and there are FAR more vicious works out there now, Yet the film still shocks. It pulls no punches in its depiction of violence, and it features a serial killer who remains much more convincing that our usual masked crackpots. This guy is a filthy, overweight, droll looking sumbitch. He's exactly the way you imagine a perverted killer would look. The realism, of course, makes his acts feel all the more vile, and his presence is damn chilling. He remains, for the majority of the film, a complete enigma. A force of nature, if you will. Jaws with a baseball cap. He almost seems like he's simply going through the motions, as he decapitates, slices and generally fucks up the day of anyone he encounters. I LOVED this guy as a villain. Anyone who's already seen the film will understand then, my frustration with the 'fate' of this character. Cecil De France and Maiwenn Le Besco are both very convincing as the targets of our merciless psycho, with De France capably carrying  most of the films emotional weight on her shoulders. She runs away with it, and is effortlessly sympathetic in her plight to save her friend. Its wonderful to see horror with such dedication to authenticity and craft. Its something we're seeing more and more in foreign cinema, and its put a mighty spring in my step, kids. Yours too, I'm sure. HAUTE TENSION is as beautifully crafted as it is shocking in its realism.

Now, its been much discussed, and for fear of spoilers I wont discuss it in detail here, but HAUTE TENSION has a twist, and a pretty controversial one at that. Theres been a lot of hatred levelled at Aja's creative choice here, and its pretty understandable that its been recieved with almost overwhelmeing negativity. It feels tacked on, needless and far too abrupt when it occurs, forcing the viewer to question the validity of many of the events that they just invested their time and emotion into. Its a very risky move. So why did the creators go in this direction?

Well, there are two ways to look at it, and for my money they're both pretty solid. The first and most obvious being that Aja was exploring obsession, love and perhaps the duality of homosexuality. I really want to go into depth here, but I always assert that a review should be spolier free. What I may do is start working on dissections of certain films where I can explore these ideas more fully. Regardless, the idea that the whole film stand as a metaphor for sexual repression is a sound one. It may be a little heavy handed, but its very easy to follow the films logic down that path.

The second reason for the turnaround is a little more controversial. You see, on first watching HAUTE TENSION I was convinced I was watching an adaptation of a rather excellent novel by Dean Koontz. That novel is called INTENSITY. Anyone who's read the novel will understand where I'm goin with this. HAUTE TENSION feels, for all intents and purposes like a complete rip-off of Koontz thriller. The set up is the same. The setting is the same, the choices made by the characters and the events that unfold are almost EXACTLY the same as what Koontz wrote years previous. its easy to imagine Koontz at home watching this, jaw to the floor, and ass making buttons. In fact, were it not for the twist in the tale, Koontz could have these guys in court and crying like babies before breakfast! Even so, Aja and co-writer Levassuer are hardly hiding it. I mean, they called the film HAUTE TENSION for fucks sake.I get it though. your a young filmmaker, you read a tale you just adore and you wanna adapt it, but what hope have you got? This is a big time writer, right? So, why not tack on an ending that changes the whole thing up completely and label it as an original? Easy peasy!

Its a damned good thing it works then, because glaring criminality aside, this remains a great film. Its a perfect introduction into Gallic horror for the uninitiated, and its still as tense, shocking and sharp as it always was. As a semi-adaptation, its about the best you could hope for, and as a treatise on sexuality, it works equally well, if you allow it to. The twist does make sense if you give it enough thought. And besides, HAUTE TENSION managed to open the floodgates for a whole generation of directors. It pointed the way. Fearless, remorseless, unflinching, and dripping with dread and tension. Your likely to love this film. Long live Aja, criminal or not.

9.5 Decapitated Blowjobs out of 10

(AUTHORS NOTE: if you haven't read Koontz novel, INTENSITY, and you liked what you found in Aja's movie, then I'd highly recommend it. As I stated, the film only covers the first 200 pages, the rest goes in a wildly different direction. Great stuff. Just a heads up from your old pal ).


  1. I've seen the debate about "Intensity" come up several times before on various blogs and message boards. I'd rather think of it as an example of syncretism. Whether Aja had any knowledge of Koontz' book or not doesn't really matter though as there are no new stories under the sun since the days of Greek myths and everything is derivative. More people are likely to watch a film than read a book nowadays anyway. As long as they are enjoying the horror, it's all good.

  2. Have to agree, sadly, on the reading issue. That said, and seeing as Intensity doesnt look likely to be filmed anytime soon, (other than the TV miniseries), its great to see such a tight story unfold on the screen. And if they ever DO adapt it, they wont have to look far for a director.

  3. High Tension was awesome, crazy twist at the end....didn't know it was an adaptation. Good write up as always

  4. Thanx Stiles. How you hell you been, havent heard from you in ages :)

  5. Thank you so much for reviewing this. I think working on dissections of certain films where you can focus on various interpretations is a great idea. I share disappointment with villain's fate. The gruesome scene in the house is one of the creepiest and realistic I can think of, especially regarding the items that are used as murder weapons. I have to watch this again now as far as the twist making sense is concerned. I wasn't terribly bothered by the twist, but I almost think of the first part of the film as its own separate narrative, which makes sense now that I now about the Koontz book. The part of the twist that involves a (yellow?) car had me stumped. I will check out Intensity now. Thanks again!

  6. My pleasure,Small Affair. The books great, Im sure you'll enjoy it. One of koontz most memorable novels imho ;)

  7. Kyle, I wholeheartedly agree with you on French horror cinema, and Haute Tension in particular. I love this film and have found myself in heated debates defending it and its ending quite a few times. Admittedly, I didn't know about the Koontz connection. Looks like I'll be going to the library today. Keep up the great work!

  8. Glad to be of assistance! You'll enjoy the book, im sure.