Based on Dean Koontz's "Intensity" - itself made into a tame film in the US - Aja gives us a very claustrophobic version and a controversial denouement. While the slaughter takes place in a large mansion in Koontz's original, here we have a smaller farmhouse with creakier stairs and floorboards. While the killer escapes in a huge mobile home in the novel, here the butcher drives a battered old camion ... a simple blue van man. There is nowhere for our heroine to hide! And, while the profession of Koontz's killer has its own significance, when Aja's murderer is finally unmasked ... it creates a decided disturbance in the force.
The story? Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn) visit Alex's parents' in their isolated farmhouse for some intense study prior to their university exams. They are grateful to be away from the pressures of academe and to have the chance of relaxed concentration. But their plans are about to be chopped, slashed, and cut short by the arrival of blue van man, who will set about butchering the entire household before carrying off Alex, bound and gagged, in his van. Marie survives the initial onslaught and has to devise a means of both staying alive and rescuing her friend.
The whole film is a homage to American horror. The killer is a reference (and reverence) to the leather-faced, chainsaw wielding creature from "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", and the scene at the petrol station reminds you of the same film. There are touches of Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" as the young women head towards inevitable horror and extinction. Use is made of a cornfield, not so much Hitchcock as Stephen King. But, while the killer shuffles around in a boilersuit, reminiscent of "Halloween" and "Friday 13th", Aja avoids the flashing breasts and glitzy girlies offered up by much recent Hollywood 'horror' to buy in the young boys. This is gimme that old time horror without the teen time sexism!
As such, as a reprise of Koontz and slasher horror, it is both reverential and self-parodying. The blood spouting and visceral sound effects of ribs grating and cracking may not be for the squeamish, but it is for those with a sense of humour. The echoes of Wes Craven's ironic advertising blurb, "remember, this is only a movie", are delivered with existentialist aplomb. There is just a hint of Godard, the constant references to material outside the film, the struggle to interpret what we have seen and heard, to make sense of inexplicable and partial images, and finally, the killer caught on film, unselfconsciously posing for the camera - "look at me, I'm in a movie".
There are axes, razors, knives, whirling saw blades, spurting blood, gaping bodies and throats, gurglings and splinterings. It's not for the squeamish. This is old fashioned bloodfest. It is neatly directed. The performance by Cecile de France is a standout. But Philippe Nahon is a coolly horrific villain whose reality slowly and convincingly degenerates into a near comic book caricature. Filmed in six weeks, this is a comparatively low budget film. Less attention is paid to the special effects than to the creation of tension and emotional distortion.
The bloodletting is highly visual, and has attracted criticism in the States. It is perhaps more explicit than Hollywood tolerates ... but then Hollywood indulges in high body count thrillers where hundreds of people can be blown away as long as it's done tastefully (i.e. with a lot of firepower involved). The butchery here is explicitly to scare. The pleasure of horror is not watching the others being killed as empathising with the survivor - putting yourself in the place of the one who will live, enjoying the thrills, spills, and scares, in the certain (?) knowledge that you will survive.
Which makes the twist at the end of "Haute Tension" the subject of so much criticism. Aja clearly saw it as embodying (or disembodying) a greater degree of emotional tension, adding relevance to what has gone before. I certainly found it a neat touch - having quickly identified the film as Koontz's story, I stayed watching because of the claustrophobia and stylishness Aja and de France brought to the production. The plot twist spun it away from Koontz and gave the film a whole new notoriety and a different set of references. French films are rarely stand alone - they revere and reference what has gone before. Aja, here, is not trying to create an entirely new horror movie, but he is exploring emotion and relationships with far greater sophistication and style than run-of-the-kill slasher films achieve.
An excellent film, well translated to DVD in anamorphic 2.35:1, with sharp images, good colour saturation, good use of low light levels, and a soundtrack which is a vital ingredient to the tension and visceral delight. The subtitles are effectively presented and well-judged. Altogether an excellent package which will doubtless set you arguing with your friends for some time - just stay clear of sharp objects.
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