Return of Project Horror, Day 13: High Tension


There's still several entries that I'll be watching solo, but I'm enjoying this guest blogger thing.  It's a little more work to edit everything together, but it's fun to have collaborators along for the ride.  Tonight, I'll be joined again by Kyle (who you will remember from Inferno).

The way I've been working out guest bloggers is by having my guest watch the movie the day before I'm scheduled to, doing a writeup, and sending it to me so that I can have it available to add to my post as soon as I'm done watching the movie.  My phone was all jacked up yesterday, and I couldn't get it to do anything at all.  When I woke up this morning, I had a phone message from Kyle.

"If it's possible, you should invite Clay over for High Tension.  I'm not sure how far he'd make it, and I'd love to see his reaction."  (Clay, a horror newbie, joined me for Maniac a few days ago.)  That message let me know that I was in for something good today.  (Unfortunately, Clay is busy tonight and tomorrow night, and couldn't join me for this one.  I'll fix him good - I'll burn his retinas again soon!)

As usual, I'm the black text, Kyle is the blue.
Hey Danny,
Greetings from the past. Where I am it's Wednesday afternoon and the nuclear holocaust hasn't happened yet. I'm assuming it hasn't happened yet whenever you're reading this but if it has I totally called that shit! Also if it has, you're still reading this? Like the world needs your blog in the wake of a nuclear holocaust? Get over yourself you narcissist!
The world needs entertainment now more than ever.  The world needs Look What Danny Made! now more than ever.  If I do not continue with Return of Project Horror in the face of these events, the terrorists have already won.


Now for my review...
I'm really glad you let me sit in on this movie. The beauty of Project Horror is that you sometimes find some diamonds in the poo poo. (When I saw you'd included a link on those words, I thought for sure it was going to point to "Roses" by Outkast, but this was actually even funnier.)  Unfortunately, there's a LOT of poo poo in the horror genre to sift through. However, I totally consider High Tension a diamond.
Quick plot summary, because, really, this movie only needs a pretty brief description.  Marie and Alex are two college girls who go to stay for a few days with Alex's family at their house in the country, so they can study for their exams.  On their first night there, a mysterious truck driver shows up, murders Alex's entire family, and takes the girls captive.  That's the whole thing.  The girls spend the rest of the movie (until the very last scenes) trying to escape the killer.

This is what horror is really all about. The gore level is ridiculous, and although I wouldn't necessarily describe High Tension as "scary" per se, I would say that it does a pretty good job of living up to it's name. Once Le tueur, that's French for "the killer" (thanks Google Translate!), shows up the film is pretty much in fifth gear the rest of the way. The death sequences are great, Alex's dad's death is way over the top, and her mom's is especially effective and disturbing. However, I did think it was odd that the hardest shot of the whole film for me to watch was the glass shard. That had me squirming.
The need for good soundbites in reviews has made it much harder to describe movies in a way that has any impact.  How many trailers or commercials have you seen that describe a movie as "visceral... relentless... a non-stop thriller!"  But those are the exact words I'd use to describe this movie.  You're right - High Tension has a few moments of setup, and then spends literally the entire duration of the rest of the movie cranking up the violence.  It doesn't have to overthink things, it's just straightforward, searing, dirty, grimy horror.  Alex's dad's death may be the most creative onscreen kill I've ever seen.

It was brilliant! 

The killer himself is a great character. I noticed that even though he is not masked, nor is his appearance hidden, still there are no full on shots of his face until close to the very end of the film. I also liked the fact that he was not just a raging, hulking lunatic, but was very clever in the way he attempted to hunt down Marie; especially as regards the revolver as well as the flashlight scene.

Did you notice how the gas station bathroom scene mirrored the subway bathroom scene from Maniac virtually shot for shot? Even down to the "prey" stooping for a drink of water and then standing up again for the big scare moment. Only here it is a total psych out.
I hadn't thought of that about the killer's face until you pointed it out.  Yeah, it saves the reveal until after the "reveal."  (I'm trying to avoid too many spoilers here.)  When it finally does show his face, though, he looks exactly right.  The scene when he's talking to the convenience store clerk reminded me of the convenience store scene in No Country for Old Men.

Generally speaking there's two directions to go in a slasher flick in terms of body count. The first is to just keep introducing empty characters so they can be killed. The most egregious (and yet totally entertaining) use of this strategy is in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. This creates a tension and release cycle that keeps things from ever getting too heavy. The second is to have a limited number of characters, most of whom die by the midway point, but then keep ratcheting up the stakes for the one or two remaining. This means the tension is ever increasing with very limited release so the anxiety level continues to rise. A great example of this is The Strangers which I thought was very effective and totally underrated. High Tension goes with the latter and it works nicely as most of the film ends up being a game of cat and mouse between the killer and Marie.
Oh man, The Strangers was really good.  "Effective" - that's a great word for it.  I keep coming back to the convenience store scene, but it's probably the best sequence in the movie.  When Marie is sneaking out of the truck, trying to make it into the store before the fuel pump stops, sprinting the last few steps before the killer can see her, I was on the edge of my seat.

The film is not without it's failings. I'm never a fan of the depiction of child murder, but at least it is handled mercifully off screen and from a distance. It was pretty obvious it was coming, and I'm thankful for director Aja Alexandre's choice not to get exploitative with this. Also, I'm not sure how to handle the ending of the movie for the sake of this review. I think, what I can say is that it kind of breaks the movie into two movies and I like the "first movie" much more than the "second movie". I'm being overly vague here on purpose. 
I agree.  If there's one reason I'm not giving this a perfect score, it's because of the ending, both the "reveal" that I mentioned above, and the actual very last scene of the movie.  It's become de rigueur for horror movies to have the big twist moment, but I feel like this movie really suffers for it.  I get what they're doing with it, and it even makes sense in its way.  As Roger Ebert puts it in his review of this movie, though, it also opens up a plot hole big enough to drive a (literal) truck through.

There was one thing that the twist did make me very curious about, though.  I'm going to put it in white text between these brackets, so that people can stay unspoiled if they want to, or select the text to read it.  [There's a scene in the truck when the girls are captives in the back, and the killer takes the photo of Alex's face out of his pocket and sticks it up alongside many other pictures of women.  Has this all happened before, with Marie fixating on other women?

The other thing I mentioned above was the actual last scene of the movie, which I can discuss without having to spoil anything.   I've mentioned this before in my previous viewing projects, but when you get a couple of weeks into them, you notice certain marked trends starting to emerge.  Things that wouldn't necessarily be a weakness when you see them one time become really annoying once you've seen them for the tenth time.  In the case of High Tension, it's the final "sting."  Practically every horror movie now has that one last scene that it ends the movie with where you find out that GASP!  THE KILLER IS STILL ALIVE!  SCREAM!  THE MONSTER MAKES ONE LAST POUNCE!  The ending in this one isn't exactly either of those, but it's one of those moments that's more of a startle than a scare, and it feels kind of cheap.  (Actually, The Strangers ends this way, too, now that I think of it.)

Overall, though, this is a terrific entry into the slasher genre. I give it four concrete saws.
Once again, I agree with your rating.  And although I slotted this into the French horror films block, it could just as easily have been part of the slashers block that I did last week.  If you've got a high thrill threshold, I recommend this one.

TOMORROW: Trouble Every Day


Agoodmanmedina said...

I find it intriguing that your picks from the French film industry have been leaning toward "torture porn". Those crazy French!
And the white text: as if I'm going to be able to stop reading!
And the world does need this blog. Even in the wake of a nuclear holcaust.

Danny Holwerda said...

Calvaire definitely fits into that category. I would say that Martyrs, although it has some similarities (person gets captured and has awful things done to them), transcends it. And High Tension is a straight up slasher movie! But seriously, I'm finding that the French go all out in their horror movies.

Yeah, I'm not good at avoiding spoilers, either, when they're dangled in front of me, but I figured I at least have to give peole the option. One of these days I'm going to say that there's a hidden spoiler, and when you highlight it, it'll just read "CHEATER!"

Kyle Lawrence said...

Interestingly, I almost mentioned in my review that HT flirts with being torture porn without actually crossing the line. But I felt I was long winded enough already without making the point.

RE: the white text...


It's funny because as I watched it, I thought, "Wow, this guy really has his technique down, he's obviously done this before." And then you get the reveal and you wonder, well okay, so has Marie done this over and over previously? And what about the Re-Animator style blowjob at the beginning of the movie? Is that just simply pure fantasy because we'd already seen Marie and Alex in the car together at that point.

So I don't think it actually works to look backwards and try to make it make sense like you can with Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, or The Sixth Sense (I know these are not all perfectly analogous but you get my drift). And unlike those movies, there are no tip offs, no nods of any kind that you could look back on and say, "Oh that totally meant something different!". I think the only thing you could even argue is that Marie seems to be pretty jealous in a possessive way early on. But it would be a monumental leap to then say therefore she is the killer.

Basically, Alexandre tells a very straight forward story and then at the end reveals it's also a totally different story. This is precisely what I mean by "breaking the movie into two movies". I think you get a really great horror movie for the first 70 minutes and a sloppy psychological thriller for the last 15 minutes, but I just don't think you can merge the two.

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