The one and only time I saw High Tension (and pretty much enjoyed the hell out of it) was at Sundance '04, which means I was fortunate enough to see the flick before it got a 45-second gore-ectomy and a doofy dub track for its domestic theatrical release.
But complaints are fleeting, because those wonderful horror merchants over at Lions Gate opted to release High Tension on DVD in proper fashion: in its native French tongue, entirely uncut, and laden with all sorts of extra doo-dads.
Horror movies are, for the most part, sneered at and dismissed as mild diversions (at best), cinematic junk food (most often), or a danger to all society (at worst). Yet one could quite capably argue that creating an effective horror movie is actually harder than mounting a dramatic piece or a bedroom farce - because while other films are content to present character studies or well-timed flurries of humor, the "true" horror film is out to make you feel uneasy. The ones that can pull it off consistently for 90-some minutes are worthy of high marks indeed.
And despite a few niggling roadblocks (and a wild plot divergence that seems to make very little sense ... at first glance), the slippery slasher flick from France known as High Tension (aka Haute Tension and Switchblade Romance) proves to be quite the dastardly dark and entertaining jolt-fest ... if, of course, you don't mind your "cat & mouse" thrillers a little on the 'outlandishly gory' side.
The plot is simplicity itself: Marie and Alex are two adorable young French women who show up at the Family Farmhouse to enjoy a quiet vacation away from school. Not three hours after the girls arrive, a hulking and sweaty aggressor rings the front doorbell and promptly cracks a huge hole in Daddy's head, thus beginning a 70-some minute nightmare from Hunter to Hunted...with a few unpredictable rest stops along the way.
Suffice to say that High Tension offers generous doses of hiding, a fair share of seeking, a whole lot of chasing, and six or seven grimly enjoyable dispatches for the gorehounds to enjoy. The joyously juicy nightmare was snipped of 40-some sickening seconds for its U.S. release, but here the film is presented in all its gory glory. And it's not just that I love nasty, arbitrary carnage (although I do), but the overt and enthusiastic nastiness found within High Tension only serves to intensify the overall mood; Not only can any character die at any time, but you can rest assured that you'll be witness to every last gruesome detail.
Visually, High Tension is a grimy, gooey treat. The settings are sparse and deserted, the kills are graphic and grotesque, and there's a palpable sense of grungy intensity and desperation that helps seal the deal as a whole. Upstart director Alexandre Aja clearly grew up on the finest genre flicks that the 1970s & '80s had to offer, and his affection for the genre shines through clearly. From the gloomy and nasty little sound effects to the heaping helpings of slick, grimy grue (and all of the breathless moments of silence in between), Aja touches upon many of the horror fans' most beloved components. (Not the least of which is a massive man-monster who wields a mean axe.)
The final product is a flick that might find its fair share of detractors (and it's far from the most unique story ever told), but it's one that'll absolutely have most jolt addicts squealing contentedly with delight. And there's that "one" moment ... the one that will cause huge debates and message-board bile for months to come ... but I can't say any more about that. Not until everyone else sees the movie, anyway. Suffice to say that "the moment" works just fine for me, as unnecessary as it may be.
Ultimately, High Tension is for the real horror fans: The ones who acknowledge the flick as a loving homage to the golden days of Hooper and Craven, Carpenter, Fulci, and Argento. Only time will tell if High Tension is bound for horror-classic status, but I consider myself a massive fan of this material, and I think the flick's a near-masterpiece.
"Uncut" note: It's only 40-some seconds of re-constituted footage ... but boy oh boy, you'll know it when you see it! And if you're new to the film, you can probably spot the previously excised footage -- it's the extra-gruesome stuff that makes you go "holy crap!"
Video: The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is suitably bleached, baked, and blistered. And I mean that in a good way. Aja has a very specific visual style, and it highlights the (ahem) tension to a dizzying degree. The picture quality of the transfer is quite strong; nearly all of the action takes place in the dead of night, which means you'll notice a little background grain here and there, but you'll certainly have no problem spying all the splatter.
Audio: OK, get out your pencils, kiddies. This is going to get a little complicated. If you want to watch the U.S. Unrated Version (which is a half-French, half-English dub, and entirely worthy of your disinterest), you can choose between Dolby Digital 5.1 or DD 2.0. As I plan to never revisit this version, the audio quality matters very little, but if dub tracks are your thing, you'll be happy to note that the 5.1 track is pretty decent, I s'pose. Then there's the U.S. English Language Dubbed Version, which comes in 2.0, minus 45-ish seconds of awesome carnage, and packing a full-bore English dub. Thanks but no thanks.
Now ... if you'd rather watch the Original French Language Unrated Director's Cut Version (yes, that's how it's labeled in the audio menu), well, you have the exact same options: 5.1 or 2.0. No worries here, and this is absolutely the audio track of choice. On all the versions, optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish. (What, no French subs? How odd.) Also odd is that, early in the film, you'll occasionally see some English subtitles when none of the characters are actually speaking. A minor annoyance, but a curious one.
Basically, bloodhounds, stick with the 5.1 fully-Frenchified version and have a ball. If you choose to visit the dubs as a curiosity, go nuts. Me, I hate dub tracks, particularly when they're recorded for a movie that simply doesn't need 'em; 65% of High Tension is entirely dialogue-free!
First up is a feature-length audio commentary with writer/director Alexandre Aja and screenwriter/art director Gregory Levasseur. The French fellas deliver all sorts of production anecdotes, inspirations, subtextual explanations, and behind-the-scenes dish on the low-budget project -- and every time they get a little bit pretentious, they make a reference to one of their favorite horror flicks and I dig 'em all over again. The accents are a bit thick, but fans of the film should little trouble enjoying this chat-track.
Next is a 23-second introduction by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur, in which they quickly mention this version's "unrated" status, and promise to stop by after the movie.
Haute Horror: Making of High Tension runs just under 24 minutes and features the writing/directing team, as well as several cast & crew members, as they share their war stories from the High Tension set. No mealy-mouthed EPK featurette here, horror fans ... plus the filmmakers are kind enough to casually explain the twist ending in rather simple fashion.
Building Tension is an 8-minute companion piece to the previous featurette, only this one focuses on the specific filmmaking tweaks and techniques employed to make High Tension so grimly effective.
Giannetto de Rossi: The Truth, The Madness, and The Magic is an 7.5-minute visit with the legendary make-up artist. Several of the movie's best moments are showcased in their "rough cut" form, which makes for an interesting analysis of the artistry involved in such a visually nasty affair.
There's also a collection of five selected scenes with audio commentary from director Alexandre Aja and leading lady Cecile de France. Taken all in one block, the commentary segments run about 46 minutes, and feature some solid chatter between Aja and his gore-strewn star. The filmmaker clearly has an affection for the classic 1970s horror flicks, which means he's A-OK in my book. (Keep an eye out, though: Monsieur Aja is presently at work directing a remakes of The Hills Have Eyes for Fox!)
(English-speaking scare-junkies will be happy to know that all of the featurettes come with optional English subtitles. Aja and de France might speak solid English, but not all of the crew members do!)
Rounding out the platter is a collection of trailers for Crash, Rize, House of D, Desperate Souls, Undead, Dark Harvest 2: The Maize (chuckle), and Saw 2. Nitpick #1: The trailers are all in one long string and not accessible individually. Nitpick #2: Where the hell are the High Tension trailers?? They've been included on tons of Lions Gate horror releases, so I cannot fathom why they'd be left off of this disc. (And they're damn cool trailers, too, goshdarnit.)
Sure it's indulgent and ugly and ferocious ... but after sitting through three dozen Hollywood horror flicks, something like High Tension feels like a nice blast of ice water right in the face. Certainly not for all tastes (or children or those with heart conditions), but if you're the sort who normally makes a bee-line straight for the horror section, here's a brazen and brutal little import that comes Highly Recommended.
(Portions reprinted from my original review of the movie at eFilmCritic.com.)