Sunday, June 15, 2014

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #3: Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION

Hey, I was just here yesterday, right?  Eh, eh?  o_O

But, anyway, on to the movie!

This is a French horror film - don't get many of those, do we? - from 2005 that served as the calling card for director Alexandre Aja (later of Mirrors, Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D fame).  It is, for the most part, a solid, if not terribly unconventional, thriller where the killer is not some masked zombie or Dream Magnet with Claws, but just some guy who looks the part: a guy in a hat, work-clothes, and slovenly.  Make note of this 'for the most part', however, just as something to keep in mind (oh, and though it's several years old, SPOILERS).

The movie is ostensibly about, well, what else when it comes to a good ol' fashioned 'slasher' than two young women (Cecile De France as our 'hero' Marie and Maiwenn as her friend Alexia) who go to a remote house in the rural part of the country, and over the course of a night have to contend with a Big Bad Man who is killing the family of one of the girls one by one.  Marie, we see, is the one who will save them through a series of events to try and draw the killer away or in to a space where he can be killed.

Aja's skill in the large part of the film is simple, un-complicated suspense set pieces.  Some of this involves the building of dread, seeing characters react and then trying to hold off the inevitable.  Aja is also FAR from the squeamish type when it comes to showing blood - when it comes to taking time with a scene he may be a step-child of John Carpenter's Halloween, but not so much when the blood starts to pour.  To give an idea, the first truly graphic scene involves a character getting his head squashed off - his skull has been placed in-between the partitions that hold up the rail of a staircase, and a cabinet comes flying down to knock it off.

The blood here is a bit over the top.  Perhaps this should have been an indicator of something being 'up' (in the fishy sense, not positive) with with this narrative.  But again, I'll get to that in another moment.  There are many things to be impressed about with High Tension, namely that Aja doesn't go for the jump scares on the whole.  Oh sure, there's a bit where Marie is listening on her walkman and gets startled by something in her bedroom, but this is the exception.  Mostly she is waiting for something to happen, waiting for the moment she can sneak around, to get her friend out, or is waiting in the back of that nasty bugger's green pick up truck with her hysterical friend and unsure how to get out of this.

There's lots of pieces like that, where Aja's camera gets us involved in the action, even when something seems a bit preposterous like what happens at the gas station in the convenience store (how quickly the killer ends up offing the poor hapless worker there).  Now, none of this in High Tension is exactly revolutionary in its execution, yet it's done more than competently, the actress de France is believable and exciting as a lead, and the violence makes things more cringe-inducing when the suspense is paplable....


And then the TWIST.  Oh, as M. Night would say, WHAT A TWIST!

I was hoping it wouldn't be the case, but it was, ultimately - the "turkey" ending, to coin the phrase from Invader Zim - she was the killer all along.  This happens in the last, not even ten minutes but maybe five minutes of the movie, and it is the sort of ending that makes the word "BUT" almost mandatory with this movie.  It's the sort of reveal that will make the audience split up, either they'll go for it and be 'Like OMG like srsly you guys, wow, I didn't see that coming, amazing" OR "Hey... wait a minute!"

And of course Aja and his collaborators who what "really" happened, and a lot of it just doesn't make sense in terms of execution.  The movie has to twist itself into knots to explain how things occurred, and the ludicrous factor is off the charts.  It's not an example of a film doing a proper dramatic "GOTCHA!" which, much as I have problems with another film like The Usual Suspects at least the claim can be made there - it feels like lying.  It's a lie that undoes so much good filmmaking that came before it, and makes this a recommendation with a STRONG caveat.

High Tension is an example of a mind being a terrible thing to waste, and by that I mean the mind of an ending. 

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