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High Tension

A Slasher Flick for Strong Stomachs

High Tension, a "new" (it was released in France two years ago) French serial killer/slasher film inspired by American slasher films produced in the 1970s (as well as Dario Argento's "giallo" films), is every bit as bloody and violent as its well-deserved "R" rating (for "graphic bloody killings, terror, sexual content, and language"). To get that "R" rating, however, Lions Gate and the director Alexandre Aja (thankfully) trimmed a full minute of graphic violence. Nonetheless, High Tension is a nasty piece of work: it's unrelenting, nihilistic, brutal, and often difficult to watch. In short, it's the perfect flick for slasher/horror fans with strong stomachs.

Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco), university classmates and friends, retreat to a rural farm owned by Alex's family. Marie and Alex plan on spending their weekend studying for university exams. The relationship between Marie and Alex is spiked with conflict and jealousy as well as unspoken desire. At the farm, Marie meets Alex's family, her mother (Oana Pellea), father (Andrei Finti), and young brother, Tom (Marco Claudiu Pascu). After a quiet evening together, the family goes to bed while Marie stays up listening to music over headphones. After a beat up truck drives up to the farm, and its driver approaches the house, the nightmare (and the hacking and slashing) begins.

Marie escapes. Unaware of her presence, the serial killer (Phillipe Nahon) sweeps through the house -- his goal, to kidnap Alex and remove any obstacles. High Tension switches gears, converting Marie from potential victim to potential savior. Marie now has two goals: personal survival and saving her friend from the killer. As a character, Marie becomes the "last girl" found in slasher films; she must confront and defeat the almost indestructible killer with little or no help.

Alexandre Aja, working from a taut, streamlined script co-written with Gregory Levasseur, shows evident skill in directing every scene for maximum effect, whether to create or sustain suspense (a scene inside a gas station deserves special mention, as does a later chase scene on an abandoned highway), or in the Grand Guignol set pieces, where Aja's makeup technicians display unerring skill in depicting the aftereffects of sadistic violence. Although several of the more bloody, violent scenes have been edited for content, those edits are generally limited to penetration shots (the audience still sees the before and after of each blow, in gruesome detail). The static-filled music score by Francois Eudes serves to create an unsettled, unsettling mood, perfect for a tightly wound slasher film.

Unfortunately, Aja and Levasseur weren't satisfied with making a straightforward slasher flick. If they had, High Tension would have become a cult classic in no time. Instead, Aja and Levasseur indulge in a patently absurd third-act plot twist that calls into question the premise (and makes the events that follow superfluous). Note to Aja and Levasseur: next time, don't borrow a major plot turn from a well known, if controversial, Hollywood film released in the last five or six years. Aja, in conjunction with Lions Gate, has also made the inexplicable decision to dub only part of High Tension into English (the early scenes with the family that precede the serial killer's first attack). To be frank, the dubbing is atrocious (e.g., out-of-sync with mouth movements), and given that most of High Tension unfolds without dialogue, unnecessary.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars