High Tension - Unrated Edition

We have an unwritten rule around here about not having the same person reviewing a film theatrically and on DVD. Until now the few times that rule has been broken has involved someone higher up pulling rank in order to get their hands on a screener copy of a beloved movie. This film is an exception though. Despite having provided a critical raping of High Tension theatrically, I’m also providing a DVD review for one simple reason: nobody else wanted to do it. Not even a free screener copy could inspire any other DVD critic on our staff to review this picture, which is even more reason for the low marks I have given the film in the past, and am about to give the movie again. As I noted in my theatrical review, the major problem with High Tension is the distinct lack of tension. The thriller tells the story of a girl, Marie, whose holiday break at a friends house is interrupted by a killer who invades the home, kills most of the friends family, and kidnaps the friend. Marie spends the bulk of the movie attempting to avoid the creepy killer while at the same time save her kidnapped friend. Yet somehow through it all, there is no tension to keep me on the edge of my seat.

Part of the major flaw of the film is the script, which constantly places Marie in needless danger through much of the film. There’s no natural progression for her character - she doesn’t act out of need as much as out of sheer stupidity. If someone comes into the place you’re staying and you manage to find a safe hiding spot, wouldn’t you stay there? Or would you leave as soon as possible putting yourself in unnecessary risk? Granted, there wouldn’t be much of a film if Marie stayed in her hidey-hole from the start of the killer’s invasion, but that’s not much of an argument given that the scripts “big twist” renders most of the movie ridiculously unnecessary anyway. This isn’t the type of twist that’s well thought out or even hinted at for the audience to see all along. Nope, it’s a tacked on, “hey wouldn’t this be clever” afterthought - the worst kind of plot twist to ever touch a movie.

For those who could care less about silly things like plot or logic, the movie might be a bit more enjoyable. It is quite a blood-bath with some extremely disturbing murders, injuries, and weapons in stock. I attribute the raw viscousness of it to French director Alexandre Aja. With a lack of French films in the horror genre, Aja attacked the film with less preconceived notions who worry a lot about what other films have done. Because of this, I submit even the most seasoned horror veteran is likely to find something in High Tension to make them wince. If Aja could only learn how to write a logical script he might have quite a future as a legend in the horror genre. We’ll see how he does with his upcoming remake of The Hills Have Eyes. In an unsurprising move, the US DVD edition of High Tension is labeled “unrated”. Does this mean the DVD release is, like so many others these days, a cheap attempt to rip off movie audiences by adding an extra thirty seconds of boobage to the mix? Actually, no it isn’t. While the added material only makes up about two minutes, the truth is this is the original film. The two minutes that were cut were done to bring the film into the requirements for an American “R” rating. Not that the two minutes really improves the film any. In fact, it’s just some extra gore for an already gory movie, but at least in this case I feel that unrated edition is justified. If you’re going to watch this movie, you might as well watch the director’s original intent.

That intention wasn’t for gore by the way. To hear Alexandre Aja and his partner Gregory Levasseur (who served as the film’s art director) talk about it, all they wanted to create was a “survival film”, not a gory slasher pic. I’m sorry friends. When you have to cut your movie to get it into theaters because its too bloody, you’ve created a gory movie. Better luck next time, but your intentions did not meet your final product. Maybe the next time your sitting around discussing how to get the shot of the heroine clubbing the killer in the head with a stick wrapped in barbed wire without harming the actors you’ll realize what kind of a film you’re actually making. Unfortunately most of the bonus materials on the disc reinforce that idea - that Aja and Levasseur somehow didn’t realize what kind of movie they were creating, and their efforts to make some other kind of film may explain more reasons for the inconsistencies of High Tension.

There is a bit of menu padding going on with the DVD, which offers an Uncut U.S. Unrated Version, the Original French Version (Unrated Director’s Cut Version), and a U.S. English Language Dubbed Version. As far as I can tell though, these are all the same film, with the only real difference being whether the movie is dubbed or if you need to turn the subtitles on (the DVD does not automatically do that for you). This means there are two options for a U.S. version, with one being marked an unrated version and the other not, but the same version of the movie appears to play for both selections.

That subtitle problem follows the disc through most of the bonus material. The DVD was not put together to automatically turn subtitles on or off. This gets a little annoying on some of the featurettes, which contain a mix of comments made in English and in French. Even for the English parts Aja and Levasseur’s accents are a bit thick, so I found turning the subtitles on extremely helpful, however wouldn’t you expect a disc produced specifically as a U.S. Unrated Version to be produced with subtitles over French interviews?

There is one main featurette titled “Haute Horror - Making of High Tension” which really outlines the making of the film. There’s some interesting bits in here as Aja and Levasseur discuss the lack of a horror genre in French films. The featurette also outlines issues that occurred during production (like the aforementioned issue of hitting someone with a barb wire wrapped stick) and where the two talk about how they did not make a gory film. Other featurettes include a discussion on creating tension in High Tension (which gave me a good ten minutes of laughter) and a featurette specifically on makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi - the man who put the blood, brains, and bits into the unintentionally gory film.

The film contains optional commentaries by Aja and Levasseur, as well as scene specific commentary on most of the film’s important scenes by Aja and the film’s star Cécile De France. Both commentaries really explain the vision Aja had for the movie, but I still don’t think he managed to capture on film. I think a “survivor film” like Aja was trying to make sounds like a good idea from his commentary, but it really needed to have a stronger foundation for the story. Still, at least he had a vision, which is more then some movies put out there these days. Actually Aja talks about the original script for the film which had a less drawn out version of the movie’s twist and I think that might have worked better. Unfortunately he was dissuaded from that simpler idea by the film’s producers. Knowing his original script had more potential gives me a little more hope for projects Aja might put out in the future.

High Tension remains firmly among my least favorite films this year, a status not repaired by the movie’s DVD release. In fact, watching it again on DVD has unfortunately only reinforced my original opinion of the movie: while it’s great for gore-hounds, I still say there’s no tension in High Tension.