High Tension

France-Romania 2003, 91 mins
Director: Alexandre Aja

The films of the New French Extremity and the accompanying focus on Gaspar Noé examine an important, controversial and highly violent cinema movement. They are not suitable for all.

The film you are about to watch may contain very dark themes, graphic imagery, and scenes of a very upsetting nature including sexual violence and body horror.

A contemporary review
Like the spectre of Michael Myers, repeatedly declared dead only to return again from the grave, 1970s-inflected horror movies just won’t lie down and die. Already in the past 12 months we’ve seen high-octane remakes of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In the coming months the notoriously ‘nasty’ thrills of The Toolbox Murders will be revisited once again, with Hooper taking over the DIY-death honours from original director Dennis Donnelly. Meanwhile from France comes High Tension, a riotous slasher throwback which writer-director Alexandre Aja describes as an attempt to return to ‘the roots of the genre, to give the audience a real “battle for survival”.’

‘I’ll never let anyone come between us again,’ promises heroine Marie at the beginning and end of this ferocious nightmare in which two young women go head-to-head with a relentless monster hell-bent on painting their world blood red. It’s a promise she is determined to keep, even if honouring it means letting her repressed animal instincts off the leash. In a remote woodland farmhouse (‘It’s like a doll’s house…’) Marie and the family of her best friend Alex are besieged by an implacable killer who wields a cut-throat razor and a growling wood-saw with equal panache. Blood-spurting decapitations, wince-making eviscerations and hefty axings ensue as the killer runs (or more accurately plods) amok, taking the wild and worldly Alex captive and leaving the apparently chaste tomboy Marie to save the day. ‘The other girls were alone,’ insists Marie, who has been haunted by dreams of pursuing herself through darkened woods. ‘There are two of us – we’ll be OK.’ But will Marie become a generic ‘final girl’ and triumph over adversity in the style of Halloween’s Laurie Strode? Or will the spectacularly slimy killer, a portly sixtysomething man in greasy grey overalls who drives a beat-up van, chew her up and spit her out with scant regard for generic convention?

Filmed with an edgy stylishness that belies the tight six-week shoot, Aja’s rip-roaring romp certainly gives horror fans more than their money’s worth, terrorising (rather than patronising) those in search of a damn good scare. Over the course of its stripped-down running time we are witness to a series of gruelling encounters played out against a splendidly abstract soundtrack packed with guttural moans, unworldly booms and insistent electrical hisses. While chirpy pop songs and innocuous mall music waft ironically over the airwaves (‘You’re just another girl,’ warns one song, ‘maybe nice, but not that smart…’), the ambient sound of High Tension creaks away like a rusty gate in hell, cranking up the knuckle-chewing tension and reminding us just what an inventively dangerous weapon the slasher genre can be when placed in disreputable hands.

Eschewing the knowing nods and winks of the postmodern slasher-cinema revival (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, et al), Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur play their killer hand commendably straight even as the numerous generic references tempt them to crack a stylistic smile. Early scenes of Marie and Alex heading off towards predictable peril in a woodland retreat chime with a string of rape-revenge shockers from Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) to Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman/I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Shades of The Evil Dead (1982) haunt the night-time exteriors of the farmhouse (prowled from ominously low angles and silhouetted against glowing moons and cloudy skies), while inside the sight of blood spraying theatrically on to bright-white walls recalls the giallo excesses of Dario Argento. Meanwhile a revolting early gag about oral sex and decapitated heads (‘Look me in the eye…’) confirms the filmmakers’ willingness to resort to outright repugnance, nodding their heads towards a string of gore classics from Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980) to Stuart Gordon’s Re-animator (1985) and leaving us enticingly uneasy about just how far they’ll go in their desire to shock.

To this end Aja is ably assisted by the monolithic presence of Philippe Nahon, who brings the heavyweight baggage of his vile Seul contre tous persona to bear on what is essentially an off-the-peg psycho-slasher villain. While his filthy overalls and shambling heavy-shoed gait recall the Michaels and Jasons of endless Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels, Nahon’s methodically grisly dispatching of Alex’s family owes more to the spectre of Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and a sequence in which he takes a powertool to a car with intestine-ripping results seems a direct homage to the only memorable scene from TCM 2.

Maïwenn and Cécile de France do sterling work as Alex and Marie, the latter a particular revelation for anyone who caught her amiably ditzy turn in the recent Jackie Chan remake of Around the World in 80 Days. Unrecognisable from her more mainstream incarnation, de France dominates the screen as the crop-haired heroine who proves more than a match for her marauding male nemesis. It’s a terrifically physical performance and a sinewy portrait of raw survival instinct that provides an easy point of identification for audience members of either sex – reminding us once again that the purest pleasures of slasher cinema are not sadistic but masochistic, focusing our attention on the trials (and eventual triumph?) of the victim rather than the actions of the aggressor. Unlike many of its predecessors, High Tension sidesteps the leery visual sexism that made some 1970s slashers such a boy’s-own affair. Although Nahon’s killer is earmarked early on as a necrophile rapist, his on-screen attacks provoke none of the bare-breasted titillation for which the genre became infamous. Instead, these grisly assaults are heard rather than seen, the sound of Nahon’s animal grunting mixing with the shrieks of his victims in a manner that’s terrifying rather than titillating.

Like last year’s equally straight-faced Cabin Fever (which also demonstrated the benefits of not playing these throwback thrills ironically), High Tension inhabits a world of nightmare cinema that seems to have been conjured entirely from the fond adolescent memories of its unabashed-fan creators. As the tagline for Last House on the Left told us all those years ago, in the end, ‘keep telling yourself: it’s only a movie, only a movie…’
Mark Kermode, Sight & Sound, October 2004


Director: Alexandre Aja
©/Production Companies: Alexandre Films, Europa Corp.
Produced with the participation of: Canal+
International Sales: Europa Corp.
Presented by: Europa Corp.
Co-production Company: MediaPro Pictures: (Buftea)
Produced by: Alexandre Arcady, Robert Benmussa
Production Executive (MediaPro): Andrei Boncea
Production Manager: Inigo Lezzi
Production Manager (MediaPro): Calin Furtunescu
Unit Production Manager: Attila Egry
Production Administrator: Catherine Grandjean
Production (MediaPro): Razvan Caminschi, George Dinu, Nicu Kasza, Adi Nita,
Cristina Dobritoiu, Dorina Popa, Liliana Ciobanu, Luminata Stanciu
Picture/Sound (MediaPro): Mihai Burtan, Cristi Onutu, Ionut ‘John’ Lupulescu, Dan Norocel, Alexandru Engarescu, Ene Marian, Gigi Sarbu, Alexandru Marius, Bogdan Varzaru, Mihai Balea, Catalin Ciobanu, Costea Marian, Liviu Balea, Gheorghe Anton
1st Assistant Director: Theodor Halacu Nicon
Assistant Directors (MediaPro): Antony Collard, Virgil Nicolaescu, Alina Apostu
Script Supervisor (MediaPro): Andra Barbuica
Casting (MediaPro): Florin Chevorchian
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Director of Photography: Maxim Alexandre
Steadicam (MediaPro): Bogdan Stanciu
Stills Photographer (MediaPro): Toni Salabasev
Special Visual Effects: Stéphane Bidault, Christophe Chanvin, Benjamin Ageorges, Jean-Antoine Lacolle
Digital Effects: AutreChose
Editor: Baxter
Editing: Films en Hiver, Franck Landron, Sophie Vermersch
Art Director: Grégory Levasseur
Artistic Co-ordinator (MediaPro): Tony Egry
Art Department (MediaPro): Calin Papura, Paul Dobre, Doru Stan, Tudor Polizu, Gabi Nechita, Alex Cseh, Dorin Grigorescu, Rusetelu Nicolae, Ionut Mandruta, Cornelia Chiu, Camelia Sirbu, Adi Popescu, Agler Catalin, Blehan Bogdan, Gabi Cretan, Corina Hera
Set Decorator (MediaPro): Ann Chakraverty
Storyboard: Adrian Cancer
Special Effects Make-up: Giannetto De Rossi
Titles: AutreChose, Cinécool
Colour Grader: Serge Anthony
Original Music Composed/Produced by: François Eudes
Music Producers: Europa Corp., Jérôme Lateur, Elise Luguern
Music Mixed by: Jerome Devoise
Sound/Sound Recording: Pierre André
Sound/Sound Mixer: Didier Lozahic
Sound/Sound Editor: Emmanuel Augeard
Sound Editing: Pamplemousse, Ludovic Escallier, Sébastien Savine
Sound Effects: François Le Peuple
ADR Engineer: Didier Lesage
ADR Recordist: Thierry Havard
Post-synchronization: Christian Brousselle, Studio Lincoln, S.I.S.
Coach/Trainer: Edouard Nikitine
Stunts (MediaPro): Zsoby Cseh, Von ‘Toto’ Jescu, Von ‘Toto’ Jecu
Publicity: Moteur (Dominique Segall, Laurent Renard)

Cécile de France (Marie)
Maïwenn (Alex)
Philippe Nahon (the killer)
Franck Khalfoun (Jimmy)
Andrei Finti (Alex’s father)
Oana Pellea (Alex’s mother)
Marco Claudiu Pascu (Tom)
Jean-Claude de Goros (police inspector)
Bogdan Uritescu (policeman)
Gabriel Spahiu (man in the car)

France/Romania 2003©
91 mins

The screening on Mon 9 May will feature a pre-recorded intro by author Alexandra West

Carne + La Bouche de Jean-Pierre
Sun 1 May 11:50; Thu 12 May 20:45 (+ Q&A with Lucile Hadžihalilovic)
Sun 1 May 18:20; Sat 7 May 20:50
The Ordeal (Calvaire)
Mon 2 May 12:30; Sun 22 May 18:20
Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous)
Mon 2 May 15:10; Tue 10 May 20:55
Sex and Death, but Make It Arthouse
Tue 3 May 18:10
Trouble Every Day
Tue 3 May 20:30 (+ intro by writer and creative Sophie Monks Kaufman); Tue 24 May 20:45
Criminal Lovers (Les Amants criminels)
Wed 4 May 20:50; Sat 14 May 12:00
Pola X
Thu 5 May 20:25; Sat 28 May 17:50
Romance (Romance X)
Fri 6 May 18:00 (+ intro by Catherine Wheatley, King’s College London); Tue 17 May 20:45
Philosophical Screens: Romance
Fri 6 May 20:00
In My Skin (Dans ma peau)
Sat 7 May 17:50 (+ intro by Catherine Wheatley, King’s College London); Thu 19 May 20:40
High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance) (Haute Tension)
Mon 9 May 18:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by author Alexandra West); Sat 28 May 12:20
Inside (À l’intérieur)
Sat 14 May 20:50; Thu 26 May 18:20
Them (Ils)
Mon 16 May 20:50; Sun 29 May 18:20
Irreversible (Irréversible) (theatrical version)
Sat 21 May 17:45
Sat 28 May 20:50; Tue 31 May 20:40
Horror à la Française
Free to view on the BFI YouTube channel from 11-31 May
BFI Courses: City Lit at the BFI: New French Extremity
Every Tue from 10-31 May 18:30-20:30

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