When I first watched High Tension, I remember getting a half hour in and thinking I was going to hate it. The atmosphere and acting was great, but I could only view the film as a remake of the made-for-tv movie Intensity, based on the novel by Dean Koontz. As the story progressed though, I found it deviated enough from the similar story and actually found it to be an energetic and tense thriller.
For those who don’t know, the French horror film follows Marie as she accompanies her friend/secret object of desire Alex to her parents’ country home for a weekend of studying. Things go south very quickly though when a serial killer breaks into the home, slaughters the family, and kidnaps Alex. Marie, having hidden from him during the home invasion, is Alex’s only hope for rescue. But just how far Marie goes in order to get back her beloved Alex is the real driving force of the film.
As I said, the acting is really good in this. Cecile de France is believable both as a sexually secretive coed, but also as a de facto final girl in over her head. Philippe Nahon is also notably gross and creepy as the shadowy slasher.
And as for the film’s style, director and co-writer Alexandre Aja more than earned his sudden horror street cred, especially after his next genre films began piling up with much acclaim (P2, The Hills Have Eyes 06, Piranha 3D, Horns). High Tension is cool and eerie and captured the spirit of night through a perfect balance of moonlit darkness and harsh electric light.
But what about the story?
The story is the make or break aspect for people who’ve seen High Tension, and though I loved it I can understand why many don’t. The ending pulls a surprise twist from seemingly nowhere and we’re left in the last fifteen minutes to register a whole new dynamic between our villain and two final girls. The surprise, which I won’t spoil though I’m sure most of you know of it, does come a little abruptly and can leave the viewer confused for a moment, but by the end of the movie you either understand it and a) find that you still enjoyed the story, or b) feel conned by it. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with it. The human mind is capable of all sorts of craziness so even though the surprise felt a little fake and left open some plot holes, I couldn’t discount it altogether. (Tip: Don’t view the movie as an open story. View it as a story being told by an unreliable narrator.)
Spoilers somewhat to follow: The reason I didn’t mind the ending so much is because it was tacked on to Marie who, as you know from earlier, isn’t a very emotional or vocal person. In fact, despite being a young woman in college, she doesn’t even seem to be “out” yet as a lesbian; not even to her best friend Alex. Imagining just how much Marie hides inside of herself, combined with whatever past traumas she’s probably endured… it’s no wonder she became what she became.
As for how Marie’s lesbian preferences are portrayed in the film, I was very surprised by how casual and natural it was done. The gay character here wasn’t written gay for the sake of useless purpose, or in some gimmicky attempt to be different. There are no steamy lesbian love scenes or gratuitous fantasies. It’s simply a horror film unafraid to involve a character’s sexuality without resorting to cheap lesbian cliches to drive the story forward (or backward).
Overall, I consider High Tension to not only be a great slasher, a great foreign horror film, and a great atmospheric thriller, but also a prime example of everything a modern gay horror film should be.