One of the things I’ve learned about movies through my life is that a movie can be bad, but still be enjoyable. I’ve mentioned before movies that I considered to be a lot of fun despite not being very good flicks - last year’s Dawn of the Dead being a good example, or anything starring Bruce Campbell. While Haute Tension (that’s High Tension to us American folks) starts out with the feel of The Evil Dead or Cabin Fever, it never quite makes it to anything enjoyable. Blood splatters, limbs are cut off with a straight razor, but the movie never becomes anything but dull. Even a bloody lesbian kiss can’t save this flick.
Like so many low-budget horror films before it, High Tension starts with college girlfriends Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn) driving out to the boonies to Alex’s family home, where the two intend to focus on their studies and relax. Shortly thereafter we are introduced to the bad guy of the movie - instantly identifiable by his rusty evil looking van. Oh, and the fact that he’s fucking a skull. Yup, there’s nothing more blunt than a little necrophilia to immediately spell out for the audience that a character is evil, although the van is a nice touch. Anyway, for no discernible reason, Mr. Skullfucker shows up at Alex’s home late at night and begins killing the family. Unaware that Marie even exists, Skullfucker dispatches the family and abducts Alex (and inadvertently Marie), leaving it up to Marie to find a way for the two girls to escape.
The main problem with High Tension is the distinct lack of tension. You can’t have a movie called High Tension and expect to keep people captivated by playing a lot of suspenseful music with loud bass. One thing the movie does do well in trying to create suspense is how they build the movie’s antagonist, Mr. Skullfucker. Here is this fat, squat, redneck who moves like old leather, creaking with every step. At the same time with his hound-dog hearing, straight razor, and malevolent psychotic behavior, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Yet as Marie ducks from room to room, safe nook to hidden cranny, there’s no suspense, and that’s the fault of the writers.
See, the movie doesn’t progress over some well planned out suspenseful storyline. Instead it advances through the sheer stupidity of the main character. Nevermind that she’s found a safe hiding place where she can wait things out without any harm or danger - Marie would rather play the mouse in a game of cat and mouse, chased by the leathery Skullfucker while failing to help her friend’s family. To even things out, the filmmakers make errors in Marie’s favor as well. For example, when she foolishly steps in a pooling area of fresh blood, she never leaves behind footprints for the villain to find. The script just isn’t well planned out, failing the audience and its cast from the opening to the final moments, including a plot twist that makes so little sense, it cost the movie another half star for my rating on it’s own. Typically a critic shouldn’t warn the audience when a movie has a twist, as it makes the reader anticipate the twist when they see the movie for themselves. In this case I feel it’s my duty to mention it, if for no other reason then my readers can substitute anticipation for tension to help make it through the movie.
While High Tension is not a great film, one of the things that makes it even worse than the movie’s own plot devices is its presentation. Lions Gate Films has sadly ignored the lessons learned from the recent surge of imported Japanese films and dubbed High Tension in the English language. Or at least that’s the first appearance. Throughout the film the movie switches back and forth between subtitles and voice-over dubs with what seems like complete randomness. In hindsight I can actually see a character driven reason why this was done, but it’s something that really only can be caught after watching the whole movie, which means it’s yet another distraction from the story on the screen.
High Tension doesn’t do much to make itself appeal to the mainstream crowd, but as I mentioned before that’s okay for a movie to do. There are lots of movies that are fun even if they aren’t fantastic films. Unfortunately High Tension doesn’t do much to reach a smaller crowd either, with the possible exception of the few who don’t care at all for mystery, suspense, or story, as long as there’s an acceptable bloodbath. For those few High Tension will be a treat. The rest of the movie going public will probably find themselves rooting for the bad guy to quickly put both the heroine and the audience out of their misery.