The word “apologist” has some unfortunate connotations. Because it shares DNA with “apologize,” most people assume that this is what apologists do, which then implies that whatever they are talking about has wronged someone in some way. All “apologist” actually means is “defender,” and sometimes you have to defend things that are unjustly maligned, like this week’s Now Fear This, the 2003 New French Extremism film Haute Tension (released here as High Tension, and in Britain somewhat bafflingly as Switchblade Romance, despite featuring not a single switchblade and only being romantic to John Wayne Gacy).
The furor over High Tension comes from the twist ending. I’m going to break one of my arbitrary and porous rules and discuss that ending, but with the caveat that I will do so only at the end of the review, and will warn you in advance. If you like what you’re reading up until then, rent High Tension, watch it, and come back and we can discuss. All right? All right.
High Tension was intended as an homage to the gritty horror of the ‘70s and early ‘80s and that love oozes from every frame. The slight grain to the film invokes Craven classics like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. The gore is visceral in a way modern films seldom attain due to the makeup effects by the brilliant Giannetto De Rossi, the man behind Zombie, otherwise known as that movie were a zombie fights a goddamn shark. Director Alexandre Aja includes a bathroom scene as homage to Maniac and an axe murder to echo Dick Hallorann’s tragic end in The Shining. It’s a film that treats trash culture as high art, and since that’s pretty much my entire raison d’etre, I was in the bag from the word go.
Two college girls, Marie (Cécile de France) and Alexia (mono-named Maïwenn), head to Alexia’s house in the country for some quiet time to study. Alexia teases Marie for being a prude, which, along with her kicky Caesar haircut, sets her up as this film’s Final Girl. Although a later when Marie rubs one out in her room, she is implied to be something a little different. Since they arrived, a creepy guy in what can only be described as a murder truck has been shadowing the property, doing wholesome things like using a severed head for oral sex. When the sun goes down, this guy, credited only as “Le Tueur” (French for “The Killer”), comes in, and systematically murders Alexia’s mom, dad, little brother, and St. Bernard. The violence is gruesome in the extreme, and though it might be tempting to level the old “torture porn” accusation, it is abundantly clear that the filmmakers are siding with the victims. The killer abducts Alexia, and the blood and pictures in his murder truck implying that Alexia is merely the latest victim in a horrifying spree.
Marie, who has been desperately hiding from the killer, ends up getting trapped in the truck while trying to get Alexia free. As the killer slowly becomes aware of the tomboyish heroine dogging his steps, he starts actively hunting her. It is only when Marie grabs her symbolic phallus (in this case, a fence post wrapped in barbed wire) can she defeat her hyper-masculine tormentor.
The interesting thing about the killer is the specific brand of masculinity he represents. Aja wisely eschewed the more extravagant trappings of ‘80s-era slasher excess, instead giving us a schlubby guy in coveralls and a trucker hat pulled low over a florid, jowly face. Whenever a serial killer is arrested, with few exceptions, the striking thing is how banal he looks. He is usually overweight and unimpressive, presenting a stark contrast with his monstrous crimes. It’s like Somerset says in Se7en, “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s the Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.” Le Tueur is only remarkable in the level of violence of which he is capable.
I have officially gotten as far as I can without discussing the twist. If you haven’t seen High Tension and want to, now’s the time to go and rent it. Go on. This will still be here when you get back.
Okay, first I want to discuss twists as a concept. When I was first beginning to take writing seriously as a possible career, I rebelled against the concept of the twist. Short stories, they said, always had one. “Why can’t you just tell a good story?” I whined. My problem was that twists had begun to stand in for good storytelling. You’d have a bad story buoyed by a twist that wasn’t set up and didn’t make sense in retrospect, and this was considered “good.” Adaptation parodies this kind of twist with Kaufman’s fictional hack of a brother’s screenplay Three. Ironically enough, the twist of High Tension is the same as the one in Three, and yet somehow manages to avoid the same fate.
For those who haven’t guessed, Marie is the killer. She’s in love with Alexia, but unable to come to grips with the possible rejection, and so invents a monstrous alter-ego who will drive them together and give them a little privacy. On the face of it, this is the hackiest of all twists, since the logistics of any film completely break down. Two things save High Tension from ridiculousness. The first is that the twist is set up from the very beginning. Marie has a nightmare of being chased through the woods, and when asked who was chasing her, she says it was herself. The climax of the film uses the same footage for when the killer is pursuing Marie. This dovetails nicely with the other thing saving the film: that it’s unclear exactly how much is happening in Marie’s mind. There are a few points in the film that at first appear to be logic gaps (Marie escapes from a truck padlocked from the outside, for example), that are actually holes in her internal insanity and clues to the audience that we are not seeing the real story. It also dodges the worst of all tropes, “it was all a dream,” by keeping the consequences intact: Alexia’s family is still extremely dead.
Marie’s subconscious designed the killer, and it’s telling what shape he takes. She is clearly uncomfortable with male attention, and invents a sadistic sex killer who personifies the destructive male gaze. The killer takes as a souvenir a picture of Alexia when she and Marie were on vacation together, implying a connection to a happy moment between the two women. The other men in the story also conform to Marie’s dim view of the gender: Alexia’s father makes a single leering comment when shy Marie arrives, and the gas station attendant Marie begs for help has a weapon on a stack of porno magazines.
High Tension is a film that unfairly lives and dies with its twist. It’s a rich homage to classic horror, and deserves a chance from an increasingly cynical horror audience.