Killtoberfest 3 – #7: High Tension

In All, Movies by Kyu


‘Je suis vivant et vous etes mort’
(‘I am alive and you are dead’)
– grafitti scratched in a convenience store bathroom

The next sounder of three horror movies for Killtoberfest 3: Third Time’s The Harm are less tightly aligned than the movies-by-decade I’ve covered already and the subgenres or franchises I’ll cover later in the month. Each is simply an example of “extreme” horror, those movies which push the boundaries of the form (or the boundaries of taste, if you prefer) by centering their stories around what a droog might call a bit of the old ultraviolence. But the particular flavor of an extreme horror film seems to rely on its country of origin. American extreme horror mostly takes the form of torture porn and other movies where the effect always seems to include an undertone of perverse, sexualized thrill for the audience. In the stylish extreme horror of Japan and Korea, it’s the world that is cruel and unforgiving, not the viewer. But films in the New French Extremity movement, such as Martyrs and À l’intérieur, seem more interested in how the darkness of the human heart imposes itself on others. Today’s Killtoberfest 3 entry, 2003’s High Tension, fits squarely into that tradition no matter which way you look at it.

And you will want to look at it more than one way. Word on the street for years was that High Tension (or Haute Tension in the original French) was a good movie ruined by an awful twist ending, and ever since its release I’ve wanted to see for myself what had the critics all abuzz. Now that I have, I disagree with the popular consensus. High Tension isn’t ruined by its ending, it’s split. The simple fact is that this is really two separate movies. The vast majority of the film’s 90 minutes constitute one of these movies; that same section, recontextualized by an additional twist at the end, constitutes the other. The critics aren’t wrong on one thing, though–that second movie is terrible.

So we’ll start with the first. The set-up: Marie (Cécile de France) and her friend from college, Alex (Maïwenn Besco) head to Alex’s family’s remote country farmhouse for a weekend of studying and relaxation. They greet Alex’s mother, father, much younger brother, and dog, and settle in for the night. As dusk settles over the surrounding cornfields, a man approaches the house in his truck. He rings the bell, the light from his headlamps filling the house’s foyer, and Alex’s father goes to answer it…

If you haven’t guessed what this is by now, perhaps the name of this man’s character in the credits will clue you in: he’s simply called Le Tueur, “The Killer.” The fundamental basicness of the set-up, setting, and characters tells us we’re in for a very specific kind of movie. I’m not even sure there’s a name for it, precisely, the kind of slasher film that features no supernatural elements, no 10 Little Indians structure of teenagers picked off one by one. These films tend to pit a single killer against a small handful of characters in an isolated location. The killers typically have no significant motivation and the protagonists no significant character traits. The examples that come immediately to mind–IlsThe Strangers, most of Martyrs, A l’intérieur–are all home invasion films, but I don’t think they necessarily have to be. What aligns them more than anything else is their simplicity. With characterization, plot, and even dialogue pared down to the bare minimum, these movies are less stories than exercises in tension, the closest modern filmmaking gets to silent movies. We watch them, all of them, with nothing but one question in mind: will the protagonist(s) survive? It’s an endlessly fascinating game of je suis vivant et vous etes mort.

In High Tension this conflict between killer and heroine takes the form of an extended game Hide and Seek played for maximum stakes. At first Marie seems more than up to the task; through cleverness and luck, she manages to keep her presence completely unknown throughout the entirety of the killer’s massacre of Alex’s family. The tide turns when the killer ties Alex up and prepares to drive off with her. Marie, whom we are led to understand is not only friends with Alex but bears some kind of unspoken sexual attraction to her, can’t let that happen, and so is along for the ride. The rest of the film (this first film) continues to ratchet up the tension as Marie seeks to find something, anything she can use to improve her situation and gain the upper hand over the brutal killer.

Taken purely as an exercise in style, High Tension is one of the purest and most well-executed examples of the genre. The script is like a Greatest Hits for the genre’s classic scenes and tropes–the killer pulling open shower curtains and banging in restroom stall doors in his search for his hidden quarry, the girl slipping quietly around corners and under windowsills in bloody bare feet, the innocent bystander whose attempt to help will probably get him killed, and so on. At each juncture, the direction and cinematography are economical and the editing crisp, delivering precisely the information you need to know next in order to increase your tension or help you weigh the decision points Marie is faced with. I’ll note one excellent little device in particular. At one point the killer stops to fill up his truck at a gas station. Marie, who has stowed away, exits the car on the other side and slowly creeps toward the store. As she walks, the film cuts regularly to tight close-ups of the gas pump’s counter as it spins up, 5 litres, 7 litres, 10, 14… It’s an unnervingly swift countdown to an unknown final number, and we understand that whatever lead time the noise of the pump is giving her will run out soon and, like a game of Big Step, Little Step, as soon as the tank is full Marie will have to run for it and hope she can make it to the door before the killer sees her. Tick tick tick tick tick… The whole of this first film has the same cleverness, efficacy, and simplicity of purpose throughout.

As the long, violent night continues through sequence after tightly constructed sequence, we see both Marie’s intelligence and strength and the killer’s demonic ingenuity and horrible implacability. A hulking, near-silent brute, the killer is the sole driver of the film’s designation as an extreme horror film, and boy does he earn it. There are throat slittings, amputations, an axe to the chest, and he’s especially interested in decapitations–in fact, he’s introduced performing the single most horrifying act in the novel American Psycho, ie., using a severed head as a sex toy–and it all plays in such graphic, blood-splattered detail that the filmmakers were forced to edit the kills down in order to achieve an R rating for the movie’s American release.

But beyond the violence itself, the murderer is perhaps scariest because of how temperate his emotions are. There’s no rage here, just business to be done, and every once in a while a moment of understated amusement. His motivations are unspecific, but several scenes suggest a sexual motive; what emerges over the course of their long tactical game is a thematic opposition between the overriding steamroller of his masculinity and male sexuality and the carefully hidden, quietly alternative feminine sexuality of Marie, who certainly has not told Alex of her attraction but will allow it to drive her perilous rescue attempt anyway. The climax that finally brings the two characters face to face drives this point home with a metaphorical rape and the killer’s argument that both characters are really fighting over who gets to own the object of their attraction. What follows is thrilling, off-putting and cathartic all at once. And it is here, on the echo of that final screaming release of tension, at exactly 1 hour, 16 minutes and 57 seconds that I advise you to stop the movie.

Okay? Good.

But if you insist on watching further, on indulging your curiosity as I did–what could this twist be that is apparently so awful, so nonsensical, is it clones, is it time travel, was she a ghost the whole time?–then for you I will review the other High Tension, the one that only ruins the experience of the other if you refuse to keep the two films split.

The movie does not actually open with the farmhouse. It opens with Marie in a room, healing from wounds, repeating a phrase to herself, and then in the woods where the first version of High Tension ends, bleeding and running and terrified. Marie wakes up in Alex’s car on the way to the farmhouse, and tells Alex that she had a dream, a dream that she was chasing herself. At the other end of the film, 1 hour and 17 minutes in, we discover that this dream was some form of truth–that Marie has not spent all night running from a terrifying killer. That Marie is the killer, and always has been.

According to what little we can surmise from the film, Marie’s hidden and unrequited attraction to Alex caused Marie to have some kind of psychotic break. While she imagined the killer stalking through the house, murdering Alex’s family, kidnapping Alex and driving away with her, Marie was in reality doing all of those things, in some insane attempt to allow her divided self two opportunities to be free. As the killer, she could work to possess Alex, to take what she wanted from her; as the heroine, Marie could work to earn Alex’s love by rescuing her from danger.

To say that this twist is problematic would be an understatement. It’s damaging to the movie from every possible standpoint. On a plot level, it simply doesn’t make sense given the level of interaction both direct and indirect between Marie and the killer. The same goes for the killer’s interaction with everyone else. Take his first arrival at the farmhouse, for instance, when he parks his truck in front of the door with the headlights on and then knocks. What are we to understand actually happened here? Did Marie go out and get a truck from somewhere? (She certainly seems to have it later on, from as close as the film gets to an objective viewpoint.) Or did she attack the family in some other way, without the aid of the blinding lights? When she stalked herself, what was actually happening? How did she accrue her injuries (which remain identical even after our shift in understanding) if not in fighting another actual human being?

The questions multiply to the point where we have to throw up our hands up and decide that almost nothing in the film happens as it appears. In order to set up a proper twist, a movie should, at most, perpetrate lies of omission, hiding crucial information and context from us in order for its revelation to make sense and fill in the gaps we didn’t know were there. High Tension lies constantly right to our face, presenting material that must be wholly fiction (like the killer’s introductory scene) or wholly fictionalized (like the scene in the convenience store, where the clerk’s reactions only make sense if there are three people in the room). In a sense the film takes the 75-minute, mostly a-narrative exercise in tension I lauded above and imposes a story on it, destroying every effect its cinematic techniques are intended to achieve. How could there possibly be any tension on a second viewing of the film? You would be far too distracted by wondering just what each sequence actually was meant to be from an objective standpoint, when on a first viewing those same sequences work because they operate under conditions of strict and unforgiving reality. The film becomes unmoored and unworkable.

Worst of all, the filmmakers did not even have the courage of their convictions. They could have at least given us that last 15 minutes on its own terms, by switching our viewpoint to that of Alex, who has understood what Marie has been doing all along and now finally must act or die herself. Properly this last part of the movie should have been from Alex’s objective perspective, and it would have been quite eerie, in fact, to see the petite Marie acting like the hulking killer and stalking after Alex. Instead the film continues to switch back and forth between the two actors (mostly using Le Tueur, rather than Marie), indicating that we still don’t necessarily fully understand what’s happening. Even the very last shot of the film suggests strongly that what we’re seeing isn’t 100% real.

So what are we left with, at the final end of High Tension? A minimally explained delusion whose bounds, details, and origins are unclear. The one thing we know isn’t true is the suspenseful story we thought we were watching. And the only thing we know is true is that the film has spun an unrequited lesbian attraction into a horrifying murder spree, a decision that at the very least suggests something that is, shall we say, not quite politically correct. The psychosis is not even all that well executed in the narrative–for a much better exploration of “l’amour fou,” interested parties should check out the excellent Audrey Tatou thriller (!) He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.

So you see now why it had to be done. As Marie learned, there are some things that are simply untenable, and the only way to deal with them is to divide them in two. I say watch this movie, enjoy it, appreciate its craftsmanship and skill… and then turn it off. It’s a good film, High Tension. And a bad one. Just like in sex, love, and murder, the trick is knowing when to stop.

– Kyu

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.