Here's the plot, all short-n-sweet style for anyone who doesn't know it...and yeah, I'll be giving it all away here. Avert ye eyes, if'n ye be a-feared of yon blackest spoilers.
Alex (Maiwenn) and Marie (Cecile de France) are college friends who drive to Alex's family's house in the French countryside for a weekend of relaxation and study. The night they arrive, a mysterious man in mysterious overalls (Philippe Nahon) arrives in a mysterious truck and systematically slaughters Alex's family. Marie, however, manages to stay hidden during the carnage. When the mysterious man hogties Alex and drives away with her in the back of his mysterious truck, Marie pursues, determined to rescue her friend. Eventually Marie and the mysterious man go mano a mano...and then in a sucker punch, director Alexandre Aja reveals that there is no mysterious man. Marie herself is the kidnapper and executioner.
Sounds ludicrous, right? Well, yeah, it might be. For 80 minutes or so, Aja leads us down a vicious, nihilistic path of random violence. The audience knows nothing about the mysterious man- he quite literally appears from nowhere, driving his truck down the long, lonely, all-but-hidden dirt road leading to Alex's family's farm. Without a word he kills Alex's parents. He hunts down her young brother in a cornfield and shoots him in the back. All this time, Marie is avoiding capture, trying to contact the authorities, and figuring out a way to free Alex from the mysterious man's clutches before he kills her...or worse. In the film's final moments, we discover (via a petrol station surveillance tape) that Marie is really the killer. Viewers feel cheated, let down, and angry by this seemingly superfluous 'twist' ending. While it certainly strains credibility at times, ultimately the choice to make Marie the killer made sense to me, left me with more questions than answers (in a good way, though, not in a "But that's just not possible!" way), and, most importantly, it made me think- which, quite frankly, was refreshing in a horror film. It's been a long time since I've seen a horror film that led to lengthy discussion and analysis- Leprechaun 4: In Space aside, of course. One could write thesis atop thesis on that tome.
So how does this ending work in the grand scheme of things? Does it make any sense? Sure, but then my interpretation is simple: Marie spends the length of the film waging a mental war with herself, until one side emerges victorious.
High Tension opens with a lengthy sequence in the car while Marie and Alex are driving to the family home. During this time, Marie teases Alex about her cavorting with boys. She berates Alex's decisions, calling her a slut, an idiot, a fool. It's obvious that the name-calling goes beyond playful banter; Marie isn't smiling, and her taunts are bordering on cruel. What gives? Is Marie interested in the men Alex is chasing? It's clear that's not the case- rather, Marie is interested in Alex. Marie is in love with her friend, a friend that doesn't share her sexual orientation. How frustrating for Marie.
Here Aja introduces the audience to the mysterious man in his truck, using a woman's severed head to give himself a blowjob.
Later that night, after there have been introductions and the family has gone to bed, Marie goes outside for a smoke. Glancing up, she can see Alex in the bathroom, taking a shower. Aroused, Marie goes back inside, heads upstairs to the guest room, and masturbates- giving herself over to her physical desire for her friend.
Marie has crossed a line and admitted her feelings, if only to herself. At this moment, the mysterious man arrives at the house and almost immediately decapitates Alex's father. He cuts Alex's mother's throat, then dispatches her little brother before absconding with Alex herself as a trophy. Marie, then, has destroyed what she feels she can never share with the object of her affection: a family.
This interpretation of the film, honestly, made me extremely uncomfortable. Aja comes dangerously close to homophobia with this work, and seems to be reciting the party line of the Conservative Right: homosexuality destroys families.
Then again, Marie is crazy.
Marie is also, most likely, a self-loathing lesbian. She sees her homosexual side- her "deviant" side (please, notice the quotes there and save the hate mail)- as repulsive. She sees herself as a vile, disgusting man, giving in to the basest desires in the most psychotic way possible (see: fellatio by severed head), and she spends the rest of the film battling her urges. Is Aja bluntly equating homosexuality with baseness, with psychosis and homicidal tendencies? I don't think so. Believe it or not, not every gay person bursts out of the closet the first time he or she feels desire for a member of the same sex. People live in denial, people live in hiding. People can be confused, and while falling in love with your best friend doesn't (always, I suppose) lead to homicidal tendencies, there are gay people who, sadly, hate themselves for being gay. In real life, one hopes people find counseling, find friends, find a path to self-acceptance...and in a sense, Marie does find some sort of acceptance for herself at the film's end. Her 'female' subconscious has defeated her 'male' subconscious, and this means that Marie and Alex can finally be together. Marie no longer hides her feelings; she's ready to spend her life with Alex, and "no one will keep them apart" any more. Again, Aja skirts the line: does homosexuality pervert everything, as the Conservatives would have you believe? Are gays simply out to convert straight people to their "despicable" way of life?
I'd like to ask Aja about his intent with this film, what kind of message it is he's trying to get across, if any- let's not forget, though, that this is a movie. High Tension is a horror movie, and Marie is crazy. Maybe Aja just wanted a wacky twist ending.
Alright, then, so how does High Tension stack up as a horror movie? I'll say this much: the film's title couldn't be more appropriate. Once the action starts, this flick has tension by the bucketful. Aja shows a great deal of promise here and a true understanding of terror. The film is beautifully shot, from the colors to the camera angles. He also utilizes sound to maximize the tension, a technique most other directors fail at miserably. Once mysterious man arrives at the house, the dialogue stops- in fact, there's precious little dialogue throughout the entire film. There's the crunchy squeak of the mysterious man's boots, there's the sounds of off-screen atrocities, there's the whiny fuzz of static that seems to symbolize Marie losing touch with reality- all used sparingly enough to leave your stomach in knots. There's no pounding heavy metal accompanying the action here. It seems that Aja learned a thing or two from early John Carpenter films: less is more, at least as far as sound is concerned. Gore is quite another issue.
This is where Aja lost me a bit: this movie is exceedingly bloody, and the amount shown onscreen only grows until, by the film's end, both Marie and Alex are completely covered in red. No, death isn't pretty. In real life, a throat slashing doesn't result in a tiny red line drawn across the neck: it's brutal and it's messy...and Aja doesn't pull any punches with the violence here. There's blood sprayed everywhere, in just-short-of-campy-over-the-top amounts. For me, though, less is more in the gore department. Anything shown onscreen that makes me close my eyes or turn away in disgust just pulls me out of the moment. Here, during the final siege, I found myself thinking "Alright, enough already!". I wish Aja had utilized the more subtle, spare hand he used to such great effect in the audio and visual aspects throughout the entire film. I guess he just wants to hit you over the head with the brutality of death- it might be more "honest" and realistic than a bloodless film like Halloween, but I don't need so much on-screen viscera in my horror movies. I know there's horror fans out there who eat that shit up, though, so take my opinion for what you will.
Love it or hate it, you can't deny High Tension's originality, which is sorely lacking in this current spate of remakes churning out of Hollywood (and yes, I realize that after this work Aja went on to direct a remake of The Hills Have Eyes- sad thing, that). I think I loved it, but it makes me feel naughty to say that. That's good. I'm anxious to see what Aja comes up with next.