Two girls in a car in a cornfield. It’s the oldest set-up in the slasher film book. And yet, High Tension (Haute Tension) presses on, not just borrowing from well known precursors but using those conventions to poke around and probe them. This isn’t to say that Alexandre Aja’s hysterically violent picture is precisely challenging what’s come before. It does raise questions about the durability of generic tricks: Why do they work repeatedly? And why are you watching them… again?
Coming to the U.S. some two years after its European release, High Tension comes with proudly brandished baggage: lifting directly from the groundbreaking, low-budget horror films Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven made in the ‘70s, it features rudimentary effects (red-gooey blood, sharp weapons, lumbering killer, here played by Philippe Nahon) and standard girl types (the screaming victim and the last girl). Introduced in the aforementioned car, Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) and Marie (Cécile De France) are driving along a lonely road and then into a cornfield, en route to Alex’s parents’ country home. Here, they imagine, they’ll do some serious studying. It’s clear right away that Marie is rather taken with Alex, and also that Alex is straight, as she prattles on about a boyfriend who has another girlfriend. They tease one another, flirt vaguely, and arrive just in time to take note of Alex’s adorable little brother in his cowboy hat and head to their bedrooms.
As Marie lies alone in bed, pop music on her headphones, masturbating to memories of Alex in the shower (which Marie has briefly noticed through an upstairs window), a knock comes at the door, rousing Alex’s dad from sleep. It’s the large, filthy, baseball-capped killer you’ve been expecting, his grimy fingernails visible in close-ups of his grip on a large knife. He assaults family members one by one, even kills the dog, while leaving Alex chained up in her bed. Marie, still loose and unknown to the killer, scampers from room to room in search of a working telephone, as the killer, working at an implacably poky pace, grunts and keeps his face out of sight. Cutting out a little photo head of Alex to take with him, he loads the actual Alex, now moaning and defeated, into the van and takes off down the dark, empty road.
Once the killing begins, the movie doesn’t look back. Not much, though it does press the point of your own looking, aligning you with Marie as she hides in a closet with slatted doors, so that she observes, her hand dug in to her imminently screaming mouth, a particularly lengthy, squishy, bone-grinding assault on the mother, who has stumbled into this very room post-stabbing, bleeding and lurching and just ready to have her throat cut, among other bloody indecencies. Stuck in the closet with Marie, you actually hear more of this attack than you see (blood spatters on the doors that barely shield Marie’s eyes), but such effective holding back is always worse, as any slasher aficionado knows.
Also delivering to generic expectations, Marie makes valiant, even nutty efforts to save Alex, who remains gagged and unable to speak throughout their ordeal; Marie stows away (apparently unbeknownst to the killer, who glugs liquor while driving—my god, is there nothing this monster won’t do?). As they’re riding in the back, the girls note blood stains on the walls and ceiling, presumably from previous victims. Alex whimpers and Marie determines to save her friend, though her thinking at each turn (say, when the van stops for gas) seems hasty at best, perverse at worst. One particularly perverse scene has Marie hiding from the killer in a gas station bathroom, terrified, relieved, even smiling briefly as she takes time to wash her face, as if forgetting her immediate purpose—to rescue Alex.
Such instances make Marie a hard point of identification. Certainly, all slasher films make viewer identification a problem. Resisting the presumption that you align yourself with one character or even one position throughout a two-hour movie experience, they fracture distinctions between victim and aggressor through “stalker cams” approximating killers’ perspectives, or unsympathetic protagonists. Identification here becomes an overt process, changing from scene to scene, sometimes even shot to shot. This film complicates even that complicated process, partly by showing Marie in a closet as she witnesses—in wide-eyed, unable-to-turn-away horror—the slaying of Alex’s bland, barely noted mother. The scene is harsh, but also key: by this time all dialogue is lost, as is the belief that Marie will be effective at any point. You’re starting to winder what kind of movie you’ve come to see,
Marie never comes to understand her part in the violence of looking, the violation it represents. But you do come to see the connections, partly through a too-clever-to-work twist toward film’s end. More effectively, Marie’s increasing investment in the violence she delivers unto the killer—her desire to inflict what she’s seen and to an extent, experienced, but more further challenges viewing conventions, leading to some viewers’ complaints about illogic, but also underlining the fundamental illogic of the genre, its mounting of pleasure in pain and essential incoherence.
Making this particular pain seem too close—with repeated jump scenes, but also with camerawork uncomfortably near to Marie, as she hides from, pursues, and then assaults the killer—the movie resists granting moral or visceral space. And so you either have to define such space for yourself (which means rejecting the conventions you’re here to see) or go along. The latter involves frequent point-of-view images (running and driving, chasing and stabbing), as well as images that build intimate panics. The mayhem makes you pay for your pleasure. High Tension is inventively grisly first, but also, past that, it is costly.