Sunday, October 23, 2005

MOVIES: High Tension

To really get into this movie, I'm going to have to spoil the hell out of it. Just so you know. So:

High Tension is France's attempt to prove their horror films can out-gore those of us Americans. And they do a pretty damn good job of it.

The story, what little of it there is, involves college students Marie and Alexia traveling to Alexia's family home in France to study for exams. After their arrival, there is just exactly enough time for Alexia, her mother and father, and her young brother to settle down for the night, with Marie up in the attic bedroom, before another visitor arrives at the farmhouse and the terror begins.

I have to give credit where it's due: when the badness begins, it is truly disturbing, and it is non-stop. The beefy, overall-wearing bad guy (known in the credits only as "Le tueur," or, "The killer") starts in with the stalking, mutilating and murdering right away, and the movie does not relent for the remainder of its hour and a half running time. The violence is genuinely awful and cringe-inducing, much more powerful than that of any American film I've seen in quite a while (even The Devil's Rejects, which is a much better film overall, can't match it for sheer depraved violence). I didn't automatically distance myself from the on-screen shenanigans, as is easy to do with most horror movies and their stupid teens hounded by one-liner spouting villains; I actually found myself getting anxious, and genuinely angry at this evil man.

The killer dispatches Alexia's parents, and eventually her young brother as well, while Marie hides terrified in the attic. While she tries to find some method of escape, the killer hears her, and comes upstairs to investigate, while Marie tries to hide, in a sequence that generates tremendous fear and suspense.

Eventually, Marie evades the killer long enough to find Alexia, who has been bound with chains, saved over for the killer to torment at his leisure. The killer loads Alexia into the back of his van, and Marie sneaks in after; the killer unintentionally locks her in with Alexia, and he drives them all back to his lair.

There are a couple more scenes of horrific violence, such as when the killer and Marie play cat-and-mouse at a gas station, resulting in the station attendant getting an axe to the chest, or Marie and the killer's climactic battle, in which she pummels him mercilessly with a barb wire-wrapped fence post. But as unnervingly well done as the movie is through the majority of its length, it's the big twist at the end that completely derails the film. Most films with twist endings cast what has come before in a different light, while still making logical sense within the parameters of the film; in High Tension, the twist ending completely invalidates everything that has preceded it. Which, to me, makes the film a failure.

Here comes the really really big SPOILER.

So, here it is: the twist ending is that the killer and Marie are actually the same person. The killer is Marie's alternate personality. Which is a really chillingly nifty twist. For about two seconds. After which, you realize how astoundingly retarded it is.

This isn't The Sixth Sense, or The Usual Suspects. Previous scenes do not have new but equally valid meanings following the surprise revelation. In High Tension, following the twist, previous scenes make no sense whatsoever. The twist ending makes everything up to that point completely wrong.

The Usual Suspects is the more apt comparison, because both films rely on an unreliable narrator to make the twist plausible. I know this about High Tension because the film's director tells us in the Special Features that this is what he intended. The problem is -- he cut it out of the movie. He tells us flat out that this is what he's done, as though he doesn't realize or care that it's ruined his film. See, the deal is supposed to be, we open with a badly-wounded Marie telling the story of the film to a doctor. At the end of her story, the doctor makes her watch a videotape from the gas station, showing her killing the attendant, and proving that there was no other person, that she was the one who did it all. And while that would've been irritating and a bit unfair, it still would've allowed the film to retain its integrity.

But the director cut that part out. Marie isn't telling the story. We're simply being shown the story in a straightforward fashion, which, as it stands, culminates in an impossible, film-ruining twist.

If Marie were shown telling the story, then it wouldn't matter how inconsistent the majority of the film has been. For example: the gas station attendant clearly speaks and reacts to two different people, in two different places, not one person with multiple personalities. Or there's the car chase: when the killer leaves the gas station, Marie follows him in a separate car, and is eventually run off the road by the killer in his van. Those discrepancies wouldn't matter if we could eventually see that Marie had made up those parts of the story. But since she doesn't, everything falls apart.

And even if she were telling the story, she includes too many details that she couldn't possibly have known. Before the killer arrives at Alexia's family's farmhouse, we see him sitting in his van on a dirt road, using a decapitated head to, well, give himself head. (Yeah: yikes.) Why would this detail be in Marie's story? She couldn't possibly have known it. Or why would the policemen investigating the killer's crimes be in Marie's story? There is no possible reason. No matter how you look at the film, it falls to pieces.

Having said all that, having completely spoiled it for any potential viewers, I'd still give this film a mild recommendation to horror aficionados, based on its well-crafted atmosphere of terror and suspense (for most of its running length), and its unrelenting carnage. The director succeeded in many ways in bringing his horrific vision to life. Too bad he got a little too clever for his own good, and torpedoed his own film with a truly idiotic twist.

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