Up until the late-in-the-third-act plot twist, I was ready to label Alexandre Aja's 'High Tension' the best slasher movie since 'Scream,' and among the best slasher movies of all time, eager to place it alongside 'Psycho' and 'Halloween,' But that last twist is such a colossal bungle, not only from a narrative standpoint but just in terms of common sense, that it almost ruined everything that came before it. Later I heard that the twist was at the insistence of powerful producer (and genre mastermind in his own right) Luc Besson, which made me feel better about Aja as a director and a decision-maker because, really, what young French filmmaker is going to turn down an idea by the director of 'La Femme Nikita?' It also made me realize, even with this colossally unsound note, the movie still towers above almost every other contemporary horror movie out there.
What happens up until that plot twist (which was a common trope for some reason in this type of genre movie) follows: two young students (Cecile de France and Maiwenn Le Besco) go out to the country for the weekend. While in this totally innocuous setting, surrounded by benign stacks of indeterminate crop, a man, a killer, comes a knockin' and murders our heroine's best friend's entire family (in pretty spectacular fashion, I might add – the gore effects were handled by Gianetto De Rossi, a frequent collaborator with Italian splatter kingpin Lucio Fulci).
From this point forward, the movie is a bare-knuckle thrill ride, with THE GIRL getting involved in all sorts of bite-your-fingernails-to-the-quick scenarios. At the time the movie opened, I likened it to the Dean Koontz novels of a specific period, I'm thinking of 'Mr. Murder' or 'Dark Rivers of the Heart.' And I think that can still be applied: our killer is an unstoppable maniac with little-to-no regard for human life, and our heroine is a plucky, headstrong woman who knows how to take care of business, partially because she still has that connection to humanity.
Aja is an extremely gifted director, and he and his frequent collaborators, producer Gregory Levasseur, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre and editor Baxter, create moments of such sustained tension that you don't know if you can actually stomach to watch any more of it. (The movie was so intense that it had to be released in North American theaters in a modified version; the original cut garnered an NC-17 from the notoriously priggish MPAA.) What's more, the way everything is staged is truly horrifying but ultimately quite beautiful: this is a slick, good-looking movie that was created for almost nothing (around 2 million Euro).
There's a reason that, shortly after 'High Tension' made an international splash, he was scooped up by Hollywood, where he made his next three movies (a remake of 'The Hills Have Eyes' that improved upon the original, the spooky-gooey ghost story 'Mirrors,' and this summer's gleefully demented 'Piranha 3D') - this dude has a good eye. Also: he's non-union. (That's kind of a joke but also true; he's probably union by now.)
Part of me wants to go into some kind of discussion of the movie's problematic issues with gender and sexuality, which only come to light after that lame-ass third act twist, but as the years have gone on I've realized that this probably wasn't any malicious intent by the filmmakers, but rather a stab at giving the movie some kind of sociopolitical dimension that it was otherwise lacking. It can certainly be read as offensive, because, well, it is, but like many French filmmakers, I think Aja and Levasseur were just trying to get a rise out of us. In a movie this intense, they were looking for any way to goose us.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'High Tension' comes to high-def on a 25GB Region Free Blu-ray disc. The disc automatically plays, and a bunch of super cheesy trailers run before halting on the main menu.
The 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio: 2.33:1) looks appropriately grungy and stylized. Elsewhere on the disc, director Aja claims that he was worried that the movie was looking too much like other horror movies, with thick clumps of fog and a deliberately 1970s aesthetic. I think after watching this transfer, you couldn't agree less with him.
The movie has a fair amount of grain, which some will probably cry foul over. But this seems to have been a stylistic move rather than a technical error: Aja was clearly emulating the down-and-dirty horror cinema of the 1970s, and so this feels more than appropriate. The grain is never distracting and it adds a nice, film-like quality to the high definition transfer.
Elsewhere on the transfer, things are very stylistically skewed – the rural farmhouse takes on a washed out, sun-bleached quality, while other nighttime sequences seem to glow and hum with an almost neon-level of color.
Skin tones are relatively realistic, although they two are sometimes hued more impressionistically, and black levels are deep and dark, although occasionally take on the bulk of the grain.
Overall, I though this transfer was really spectacular and, even if you aren't as impressed as I was, you will note that this is a marked improvement over the previously released DVD issue.
Ooh how about a little controversy, fellows? That'll add some sizzle to this review! According to persistent reports (and actual evidence), the subtitles on 'High Tension' are actually "dubtitles." "Dubtitles" is a term coined by anime fans for when subtitles are transcriptions of the dialogue spoken in a dubbed soundtrack, instead of a direct translation from the original film. If you'll recall, there was similar controversy around the release of 'Let the Right One In.'
Anyway, the dubtitle accusations are apparently true when it comes to 'High Tension,' not that I'd know any different because I'm not a croissant-eating Frenchman. Supposedly there isn't a huge disparity between what is spoken and what appears at the bottom of your screen, and considering there are about 25 words spoken in the entire movie, this seems to be sort of a non-issue. Anyway, you should probably know about this going into the movie, because if it's the kind of thing that sticks in your craw, it will probably decide whether or not you pick up this Blu-ray (it's pretty cheap – pick it up anyway!)
Now that we've got that bit of business squared away, I must say that I was sort of blown away by the lossless French DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track. This thing is full on for the entire movie, an aggressive and relentless piece of surround sound business that will have you leaping out of your seat. Every element of the mix is designed for maximum effect. And boy does it succeed.
Sound effects are sharp and clear without ever being overwhelming. When the killer slices into a victim's throat, spraying a fine mist of arterial blood, you will feel every second. (This is true throughout the whole movie.) The surround sound channels are always alive with activity, but it's never show-off-y or in-your-face. Things are just always going on, and there are thick layers of atmosphere when there isn't throat-slitting on screen.
Plus, the music sounds totally great, too. Not only does the eerie score by Francois-Eudes Chanfrault take on an added dimension with this sensational mix, but the expertly chosen soundtrack (particularly an early, killer tune from Brit pop band Muse) sounds even better.
There are no glitchy technical issues here, either. And what this track does, so well, is totally place you in the movie. You are totally a part of these hair-raising scenarios, and it adds so much to the home video experience; an expertly done mix.
Also on this disc is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 dub track, and subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
All the extras from the original DVD release are present and accounted for (and there are quite a few). Also, you should be pleased to know that this is the uncut version of the movie (the one that was threatened with an NC-17 rating here in the states), and for that you should be very thankful. Sadly, the theatrical trailer isn't included, which I remember made great use of the Muse song that’s featured in the film. Oh well. I guess that's what You Tube is for.
'High Tension,' despite its preposterously goofy climax, remains one of the more riveting (and out-and-out terrifying) horror films in recent memory. Alexandre Aja's directorial skills are almost unparalleled, in terms of intensifying the terror and sustaining it for prolonged periods of time. The video and, particularly, the audio, are huge improvements over the previous DVD iteration, and there's a nice, if not overwhelming, collection of special features that were previously available. Even with the "dubtitle" controversy and what some may view was excessive grain, 'High Tension' is highly recommended (especially since you can find it relatively cheap online). 'High Tension' on high-def? High five!