Anytime a movie employs a narrative twist, a contrivance meant to mess with the audience and its plotpoint attentions, it runs the risk of becoming a one trick motion picture pony. Put another way, The Sixth Sense barely survives its "I see dead people" reveal, while something like The Crying Game has more to offer than some character's mis-gendered "junk". For Alexandre Aja, and his slasher throwback Haute Tension (released in the U.S. as High Tension), the last act denouement regarding the ID of the killer is so crucial to the fright facets we're responding to, and yet so completely destructive of any replay value, that the film becomes a 'view once and discard' experience. After you know the gimmick, after you experience the storyline sideswipe the director came up with at the last minute (with some input from producer Luc Besson), there's no going back. The gory slice and dice no longer really works - not as post-modern reinterpretation, or on Blu-ray, as a high definition horror show.
Marie and Alex on traveling to the countryside to stay with the latter's family. Along the way, they discuss their respective love lives and the lack of excitement in the suburbs. Once they arrive, they meet Alex's hard working dad, her decent mother, and her bratty little brother. As night falls, the silence of the outskirts give way to something sinister. A truck pulls up to the property, a miscreant man in dirty overalls stepping out from the fetid cab. Within moments, he is murdering everyone in sight, slicing and splattering the clan with callous amoral disinterest. As Marie tries to make her escape, she sees Alex kidnapped. Jumping in the back of the blood-covered vehicle, she rides along as the killer takes her to a secluded spot. There, our heroine decides to stand up for herself. Taking matters into her own hands, she confronts the villain, only to discover something truly unsettling about the entire situation.
For the first 50 minutes or so, Haute/High Tension is a wonderful fright flick. It hits all the right early '80s notes while tossing in enough MPAA-aggravating sluice to keep gorehounds good and giddy. It's clear that director Aja and his collaborator Grégory Levasseur have studied every slasher film to finds its way out of Hollywood since Black Christmas begat Halloween - and so on...and so on...and so on. Even better, the French filmmaker adds his own unique visual touches, investing his horror with a great deal of atmosphere and dread. And then the twist arrives, not quite obvious, but a little more than telegraphed along the way. At this point, High Tension starts to fall apart. The reveal makes us wonder about scenes we saw previously - the decapitated head blow job, the various chase elements and killer to victim conversations. Unlike the work of others who use a last act shocker to restructure the previous plotpoints, High Tension cannot hold up to such scrutiny. Within a few revisited minutes, you are already realizing that the gimmick has turned something grim into something goofy. But by the time of the Psycho styled finale, the ruse is purely ridiculous.
This doesn't mean that High Tension can't be enjoyed as a work of visceral terror - it just means that the entire narrative is now clouded by the killer's ID. Indeed, if you haven't seen it before, jump right in and sit back: it's going to be a glorified gonzo ride. But if you have fond or even floundering memories of the movie and think a return to its fear factors will reinvigorate your appreciation (or lack thereof), think again. Even with all its bravura elements and directorial flair, even with performances that stand out in the otherwise ordinary world of scary movie acting...Heck, even with all the false ID falderal, once you've witnessed what High Tension has to say story-wise, the film is finished. It's a one shot deal. Upon repeated viewings, plot holes big enough to taxi whales through open up, inconsistencies drive you to distraction, and the most important element of any psychological freak-out - the killer's manic motives - are left to something akin to experimentation in college. If that last reference made little or no sense, don't fret. It's no more confusing than High Tension's psychosexual blunder.
Again, Aja is to be praised for pulling off the near impossible - making the slasher movie a relevant and viable post-millennial genre outing. His precision and attention to moody detail is impressive. His camera control, framing, and compositional decisions are to be praised. Indeed, the only lingering problem with High Tension is that sniggling little plot point - "whodunit?" True, you could get lost in whether or not our victim(s) will survive, pray that the backstory on the burly, dirty truck driver gets aired out and explained, and fret over the fate of anyone who gets in the way of their brutal byplay. And one does have to admit that High Tension is better than the bevy of bewildering B-movie shivers with names like Wrong Turn and Rest Stop and Joy Ride. Maybe there are some in the fright fanbase that can get past the reveal and revel in what this movie has to offer time and time again. Most, however, will discover that, one disclosed, the gimmick of this film forever alters it - and not necessarily in a good way.
High Tension will leave some Blu-ray purists shouting for Lionsgate customer support. Overly dark, flecked with grain, and purposely lacking the clear contrasts of your typical mainstream movie, director Aja is obviously in love with the neon sick green and yellow of his various rural locals. There are times when the film looks like a fashion shoot conceived of by the Grand Guignol. At other instances, the 1080p AVC encoded image offers a weird, slightly substandard 2.35:1 presentation. It's not that the distributor has somehow dropped the ball on this release - Aja clearly wants this film to look this way. But in a realm where reference quality is everything, there will be those who will quibble endlessly about the movie's murky mannerisms.
The lossless French DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix presented is a primer on the important role that sound can play when it comes to creating dread. Whispering voices, mysterious footsteps, unlikely ambient noises, and even the occasional jump out of your seat "SLAM" is amplified by the brilliant design and format recreation. Few horror filmmakers utilize the aural aspect of suspense. Instead, they opt for a more visceral visual punch. But Aja is different, and the Blu-ray release of High Tension illustrates why.
Mostly ported over from previous editions of the film, we get a nice 25 minute making-of, a tribute to F/X maestro Giannetto De Rossi (a Lucio Fulci favorite, and it shows...), a featurette explaining how fear is manipulated in the movies (via shot selection, editing, narrative placement, etc.) and two commentaries. One features Aja and Levasseur and centers specifically on the overall love these men have for horror. The director also sits down with actress Cécile de France (Marie) for a scene specific outing which deals with some of the nastier parts of the movie. All in all, the bonus features are very informative and add to our appreciation of the olds school scare mentality employed here.
When it first arrived in theaters, High Tension was the answer to a dyed in the wool fright fans slice and dice prayers. From the callous kills to the clever cat and mouse, it argued for Alexandre Aja's ascension as a new and true movie macabre voice. It was easily Highly Recommended. But thanks to the now known twist, the answer to a question few really needed to understand so well, the movie loses something. It doesn't drop down that far, but a Recommended rating with a clear caveat is probably warranted. Just remember - if you know the killer's identity, the movie definitely loses something. Even as you are appreciating the cinematic craft and skill that went into it, the "twist" takes its toll. If you are new to this movie, the Blu-ray will serve you well. It will also only serve you once.