Haute Tension (2003)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #39

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Also Known As: High Tension, Switchblade Romance
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: June 18, 2003
Sub-Genre: Road Horror
Country of Origin: France
Budget: €2,200,000
Box Office: $6,291,958
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Alexandre Aja
Producers: Alexandre Arcady, Robert Benmussa
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur
Special Effects: Adrian Popescu
Cinematography: Maxime Alexandre
Score: François-Eudes Chanfrault
Editing: Baxter
Studio: EuropaCorp, Alexandre Films
Distributor: Lionsgate
Stars: Cécile De France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea, Marco Claudiu Pascu, Jean-Claude de Goros, Bogdan Uritescu, Gabriel Spahiu

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Suggested Audio Candy:

François-Eudes Chanfrault High Tension

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I have always struggled to comprehend folk’s aversion to foreign language films. The chief reason for this is subtitles and it can prove admittedly frustrating being distracted from what is playing out on-screen as we frantically attempt to keep up with dialogue prompts so I can understand the disconnect to some extent. Having said that, the Europeans in particular, offer some of the most vital, invigorating and risqué cinema and it saddens me that this often doesn’t travel well. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] is a prime example of a great movie that only saw the light of day stateside on account of its localization under the guise of Quarantine. Needless to say, it was far more effective in its native Spanish tongue.

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However, particular subtitled works are easier to navigate than others and Alexandra Aja’s Haute Tension offers proof positive as the lion’s share of the dialogue in this frankly barmy bloodbath arrives within the first handful of minutes. Aja wastes no time in setting out his stall and, from heron in, we are treated to one long nerve-shredding nightmare for the remainder of its 91 minute duration. There is very little in the way of characterization and Aja makes no bones about what kind of flick he wants us to endure. We’re talking edge of the pants all the way and his sole wish is for his audience to spend that time gasping for oxygen, achieving his goal through way of slick, pacy direction.

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There are no sub-plots to distract us and once the initial madness has been instigated (providing good reason never to answer that doorbell again), the sole objective is to join our harassed heroines Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn) as they endeavor to remain one step ahead of their assailant. Cue lots of running, enough to give Franka Potente an asthma attack, and more than a fair share of cowering in tight crawlspaces to boot. Defeat is never more than a solitary heartbeat away and every potential hiding spot invariably ends up painted with deep red emulsion. All the while, we are left panting for precious air as Aja continually constricts us at every turn.

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It is an exhausting experience and, by the time the end credits roll, chances are, we will be left feeling like we’ve just gone twelve rounds with Ivan Drago. Suddenly we’re very aware of our direct surroundings and nearest available evacuation points. When done right, cinema has the power to provoke this response from its addressees but they’re tools which are sadly utilized far too rarely. Neil Marshall’s The Descent is a stellar example of a thoroughly oppressive atmosphere where tension mounts with each square-foot rappelled and the very same level of discord is struck here.

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The French have hit a rich vein of form in recent years with “un flux de créations d’horreur succès”. Martyrs, Them, Inside, La Meute, La Horde, and Frontier(s) have offered more than enough proof of a nation on the rise with regards to horror and Haute Tension effortlessly finds its way into the upper echelons of that exclusive list. Aja demonstrates an inimitable understanding of his craft here once he has gained our attention (in no uncertain terms I hasten to add) he toys with his subjects; watching our insecurities manifest one by one. Moreover, I get the distinct feeling that he gets a kick out of doing so.

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We all know that you cannot commence a sentence including the words French horror cinema without his name cropping up as he has since gone on to become one of their most valuable exports. Snapped up faster than Kenny Powers can ejaculate in his jock strap, this man was entrusted with Wes Craven’s treasured The Hills Have Eyes and Joe Dante’s Piranha, and somehow his end products arguably matched their predecessors. This is not an easy feat for a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, especially one plucked from his comfort zone. Even Mirrors, which endured a rocky ride from critics, had moments of sheer unadulterated brilliance. However, it was Haute Tension that placed him firmly on stateside radars and I still regard it as his finest work.

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As I mentioned before dialogue is at a severe premium which thankfully means that no American re-imaginings have surfaced. Splatter is the main currency here and Aja sprinkles liberally throughout. An early scene involving a soon-to-be freshly varnished bureau and the banisters of the family staircase provides indication of this man’s wicked soul. Lesser works would struggle to hold our interest after such a magnanimous opening dispatch and traditionally directors leave their best tricks tucked up their sleeve until much later on but not Aja. Haute Tension has plenty of gushing grue to rival its stairwell decapitation and Adrian Popescu’s practical effects are more than up to snuff. By the closing stages, any semblance of subtlety has gone out the window and the screen becomes literally doused in rouge as it jettisons from every spraying orifice.

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Both of our leads excel in displaying heightened levels of terror and seem comfortable with bathing in Aja’s generous splurge of red fluid. Meanwhile, the killer is wonderfully workmanlike and totally unremitting towards his quarry. While essentially looking like he’s about to supply a quote on automobile maintenance, he clearly doesn’t take well to being informed his prices are extortionate, and dispatches any stragglers willy nilly without a single blink of the eye. If there is a chink in his armor then it would invariably be the closing reveal as we are finally informed of his true identity and this is bound to divide opinion. Sure, its woefully implausible, but it’s hard to argue with logic when your senses are being consistently pummeled so I’ll happily let this blip slide.

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The bottom line is this: Haute Tension gleefully supplies the precise ingredient its title suggests. Illogical, flawed, debilitating, vicious, pressurized, mystifying – all these words accurately describe Aja’s head-turning titan and that represents a pretty unanimous success in my book. You may turn your nose up at the prospect of another European reading exercise but thankfully guttural screams are identical in any langauge and there are two of them for every solitary word uttered throughout. Moreover, we all bleed the same when you cut us and deep red just so happens to be Aja’s favorite color.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 5/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Like a wide-eyed child in a toy store you will gawk in astonishment at the banquet laid out before you. Alexandre sure likes to squirt it around and there are a fair few scenes you’ll wish to revisit before the disc leaves your drive. Aside from the suitably grisly opening kill, we are provided with one of the most wince-inducingly conclusive throat incisions ever committed to celluloid and, by the time that circular saw is fired up and put to glorious use, there is no longer sufficient screen space for subtitles.

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Read The Hills Have Eyes (2006) Appraisal

Read Piranha 3D (2010) Appraisal

Read Mirrors Appraisal

Read P2 Appraisal

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