High Tension


Viewed – 12 November 2013  Blu-ray

Director’s Cut

Amongst horror fans, this one movie has quite a reputation.  Firstly it spawned the surge of extreme horror coming out of France, that unleashed such cult favourites as À l’intérieur (Inside) and the infamous Martyrs.  It also kick started the career of director Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D, The Hills Have Eyes).  This tells the tale of best friends Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn) who travel to the countryside residence of Alex’s parents to stay for a holiday.  However, amongst the idyllic surroundings, there lurks a serial killer, who drives a rusty old van and is waiting for the right moment to strike.

high tension

This atmospheric and nerve-shredding slasher movie is France’s answer to all those American genre movies that copycat Friday The 13th and Halloween – albeit with a brutal unflinching intensity that’s not easy to recover from.  In America this was initially cut by several minutes to avoid the dreaded NC-17 certificate, but this unrated ‘directors cut’ restores all the blood and violence that the director intended.  Rejoice gore-hounds, their is much to get your hands dirty with here – graphic throat slitting, beheadings, stabbings and even a chainsaw!!  But I digress – above all else this movie is primarily about tension.  Violence is spaced out, infrequent, but when it comes – it packs a punch … made all the more effective by intense build-ups.  It’s clear why the movie’s title is High Tension (Haute Tension) when translated, as apposed to the less ideal Switchblade Romance as it’s known in the UK. 

Now let’s get to why this movie has also divided critics.  There is a twist, that is much talked about and is basically why this isn’t perfect … and for me ruins the overall effect.  All I can say to Alexandre Aja is … why?  My only explanation is that when this movie was released in 2003, there were many a movie that had a twist – it was the in thing, but the movie worked well enough without one.  It’s a real shame because this is brilliantly shot, with a superb use of sound and music (especially Muse’s New Born) that regardless of such a fault – still manages to be a cut above similar horrors.  After repeated viewings, I can’t forgive what direction Aja chose to take, which means it’s far from a masterpiece, but oh boy … will you remember it!

The Blu-ray from Lionsgate features the movie in eye-catching HD and although the muted colour pallet and the mostly night time setting prevent this from being a showpiece title – the movie is in great condition, and the 7.1 DTS French Soundtrack is superb and really effective.  Some controversy has been labelled at the dubbed French voices, but I found it barely noticeable.  There is also an English dubbed soundtrack (best avoided) if you just can’t do subtitles (shame on you!).  Add to this several featurettes exploring the making of, as well as an English language commentary by the director and producer (well worth a listen) and scene specific commentary also – that for fans this is an essential purchase.  Everyone else I recommend this if you’re after a really tense and brutal slasher that doesn’t hold back … but perhaps leave your brain on pause.

Verdict:

(the movie):  3.5 /5

(the Blu-ray):  4 /5

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Macabre


Viewed – 11 August 2012  DVD

As followers of this blog will attest, I love horror movies.  I like how nothing is safe in a horror movie, and anything could happen.  I like the suspense, the atmosphere and the gore of a horror movie.  In recent years, the safety net has been dropped from horror and it seems (almost) anything is possible.  This Indonesian movie can be held up as one example of this new era – and oh my god, does it pack a punch.

In the grand tradition of cult favourite The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a group of twenty-something friends stumble upon a girl in the middle of the road after a night out on the town, and offer her a lift back to her secluded house in the woods (!), where they are invited by their freaky, forever young mother, to stay for a meal as a thankyou for their hospitality.  Yet soon the group are drugged and wake up in a cellar, tied up.  A night of unrelenting terror then follows.

This admittedly clichéd set-up is followed by a tour-de-force of violence, butchery and extreme blood-letting as the group fight for survival.  There really is nothing left to the imagination here, and viewers of a squeamish disposition should stop reading now – this is not your movie.  There are graphic scenes here of dismemberment that many a movie would shy away from – but this one had some cast-iron balls and for the most part my eyes were bulging and my jaw had hit the floor.  I would have liked more light shed on the background of the family and their motives, and some of the characters were rather annoying and lacked personality.  This movie however had the same tone and bold-execution as French masterworks Frontiers and Inside that although not doing anything particularly imaginative – delivered as an entertainingly brutal and unflinching experience.

Verdict:  3 /5

Cinema-du-shock


In the past five or so years, there has been a resurgence in horror movies from foreign climates, most notably France. Where our American cousins may be stuck in remake hell, the French seem to be doing something all together more gutsy and raw. I have always had a fondness with world cinema as a whole, and consider France to be one of the best countries for both drama and action with acclaimed names like Luc Besson and Vincent Cassell among their exports. Yet I only really became aware of French horror with the slasher movie Switchblade Romance (Haute Tension), a quality throwback to the video nasty era of the early eighties, and a movie that left me both impressed with its quality and stunned by its unflinching violence. Yes, American & UK movies have stepped it up as far as on screen violence goes with the likes of the Saw franchise and Eden Lake or The Descent… but something about ‘Switchblade struck a cord with me… and made me thirsty to hunt out more French horrors.

Little did I realise that Switchblade was only the tip of the iceberg, and other horrors were to push my endurance and comfort levels further than ever before. Although ‘Switchblade remains conventional in the slasher flick rule book (apart from a seriously dodgy twist climax), what else I have seen has made me somewhat cautious when sitting down to watch another. Martyrs should probably go down in history as the most disturbing torture / revenge movie ever made – it takes no prisoners, and the on screen suffering is quite tough to watch… but again, it’s done with a great deal of skill, that although I may have been disgusted, I couldn’t help but admire it’s audacity at the same time. Similar in bold attitude is Inside (À l’intérieur), another difficult to watch experience, soaked in blood and featuring a very nasty and unpleasant ending. I also don’t recommend it if you are pregnant or just given birth. Yet I couldn’t help but be impressed. The talent available in France seems to be very different and with less restraints than say Eli Roth or Rob Zombie. These guys do enter the territory explored in French horror, but come away formulaic and not quite as brave (or should that be crazy) as the French, and for me these movies would never get the green light in Hollywood. Also add to the argument that these are in unfamiliar surroundings with foreign speaking cast, and the comfort of a glossed over American or British movie is lost, and all bets are off. This is one reason why Japanese chillers like Ring work so well – it’s the discomfort in the unfamiliar that is completely lost when such movies are remade by American studios.

So if you are into horror, not just casually, but have grown up on Friday the 13th and Halloween, yet yearn for those days when a horror movie was the forbidden fruit and not the audience grabbing new kid of the mainstream it is now, then check out French horror – but I warn you now, it will leave its mark on you, for better or worse.

I still feel a newcomer though to French horror, but plan to review more titles on this blog in the coming months, not just from France but also other countries.  For now here are my reviews as posted on this blog.

Martyrs  (France)

Inside  (France)

Frontier(s)  (France)

Let The Right One In  (Norway)

Rec  (Spain)