"High Tension" (2003) DVD, Blu-ray Movie Review

10/15/2010 Posted by Admin

"High Tension" (2003)

DVD, Blu-ray Movie Review

Directed by Alexandre Aja, Written by Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, 91 minutes, Rated R.

By our guest blogger, Matthew Schimkowitz

Director Alexandre Aja’s second feature, 2003" "High Tension," which is just out on Blu-ray disc, sets its sights high in trying to stay one step ahead of the viewer. The film’s deconstruction of genre convention, graphic violence and misdirection leads the audience down a grizzly well that maintains a stronghold for the first half hour. However, Aja’s dismantling of the genre’s core structure puts the film’s weight on the first act and gives his characters nowhere to go in the following two acts. As a result, "High Tension" falls into redundancy as soon as things become complex.  As such, it leaves behind a fantastic first act for a boring second act and a confusing third act.

"High Tension" works in a similar fashion to most slasher films--two girls head to a secluded location and meet a soulless killer. In this case, the two girls, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Bescoas), go to Alex’s family farmhouse for a relaxing weekend. Shortly after their arrival, a malevolent stalker (Philippe Nahon) forces his way into the house, murders the family and kidnaps Alex. In desperation, Marie sneaks into the captor’s truck in hopes of saving her friend.

Aja’s film is as grizzly as its subject matter. The film presents a gritty, dirt-covered world that casts stark shadows and grimy atmosphere upon its characters.  This gives the film an unsettling look even when Aja isn't explicitly showing a horrible act of violence and depravity, such as decapitations, disembodiment and necrophilia, among others. The director delivers a distinct tone and a relentless ghoul but rarely any of the tension his title boasts.

Much of the film relies on Marie’s infatuation with Alex. Her love, although unrequited, is what drives the film in terms of her interest in the chase and what's on the line. Aja is smart to inject this variation on an old form, but his handling of the subject is confusing and strange--he turns Marie’s desire into a threat by the third act. Furthermore, by simply brushing over their relationship in the opening scenes – hence, why that first act is important for establishing character – we never get a sense of where the two are in their relationship aside from some idle chit-chat. Since Aja never fully establishes their relationship pre-killer, it’s hard to care about that relationship when things get hairy.

The film’s first act is easily its strongest with Aja putting a set of realistic barriers in front of Marie. A phone-line blocked by a heavy dresser or a quick room cleaning to throw off the killer creates the greatest moments of dread and suspense in "High Tension."  When the film works, it works very well. Being in that farmhouse with nowhere to hide as a merciless killer haunts its inhabitants is reminiscent Tobe Hooper’s "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," but it’s when they leave that the problems start.

By killing off almost everyone in the film within the first half hour and switching gears to the chase, Aja relieves the film of the house’s claustrophobic terror. Suddenly, many of the scares Aja attempts appear redundant and boring. Marie hides around the convenient store in the same fashion she did in the house without much variation. The stakes don’t change much throughout.  Instead, Aja puts all of his weight on his twist ending that serves only to confuse.

Things end in a type of Psycho-esque multiple personality conclusion that ultimately muddles the plot, particularly the film’s opening credit sequence. It leaves the door open for numerous readings, which is interesting, but as soon as one takes a logical standpoint, the ending crumbles.

Alexandre Aja’s "High Tension" isn’t necessarily a bad film, and in a genre so wrought with clichés, it’s an earnest effort to shake things up.  That said, his tribute to clichés in "Piranha 3-D" was met much more favorably. In the end, "High Tension" is a mixed bag that slowly relieves tension as it presses forward.

Grade: C-

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