Despite having some obvious flaws, including a plot hole that you can drive a tank through, Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension is an undeniable watershed moment for the French New Wave of horror, and launched the career of one of the most interesting directors to come out of that movement. When I first saw the slasher film at it’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003, the shocking violence and take-no-prisoners mercilessness gripped me completely, even though the film’s ending doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s a film that’s as frenetic as it’s title, which changed no less than twice from it’s original (Haute Tension) to it’s English translation (High Tension) and finally to the inexplicable Switchblade Romance (which has nothing to do with anything in the film). For the purposes of my own sanity, I’m going to use the original title, Haute Tension, here.
Even with that ending in mind, I’ve revisited Haute Tension so many times since that first screening and the reason is because it contains my hands-down favourite scene in horror. It’s a scene that kept me up at night for months – maybe years – afterwards. In a movie that’s filled with early-Wes Craven-esque relentless violence, the scene that jumped out at me on first watch, and which sticks with me before and after every subsequent viewing of the film, is the most extreme. No, it’s not the dead baby in the cornfield (which, I believe, was one of several cuts from the theatrical release to skirt a NC-17 rating), though I can see why you’d think that.
A brief plot synopsis. Marie (Cecile De France) and American pal Alexia (Maiwenn) are on a study break from school and are set to spend some time with Alex’s parents and precocious younger brother in the countryside. There’s some tension, so to speak, that’s largely on Marie’s side as Alex obliviously talks about sexual conquests with men, and Marie is almost transparently jealous. Meanwhile, an ominous-looking man in a truck follows their movements, and his nefarious intentions become pretty clear after we see him masturbating with a woman’s severed head. Marie and Alex make it to the house and meet Alex’s welcoming parents, but Truck Guy shows up that first night and starts working his way through the family, dispatching them in increasingly violent ways.
Alex’s mother (known only as Mere Alex) has an encounter with the killer that is one of the most extreme in the movie, and the scene that really gets me in Haute Tension has Marie discovering the body. Alex’s mother, covered in blood and with a bisected jugular twitches to life, holds up a grotesquely severed hand and mutters, “pourquoi…pourquoi…pourquoi” (“Why? Why? Why?”) It’s not even the goriest scene in the movie, though it’s up there, but the absolute senselessness of it, the lack of reason for being so violently murdered that way is terrifying to me. You know, in that moment the complete confusion the character must have felt as she was attacked and nothing pushes my buttons more than that. The feeling that someone is out to get you and nothing you could do or say would stop them, because there’s no reason behind the act, well, what could be worse?
The impact of the line and the reveal of Mere Alex’s wrist work in tandem, and the scene’s punctuated by the actually-great jump-scare of her jerking awake despite looking extremely dead. It’s remarkably effective and has stuck with me for years as the high (haute?) point of a movie with some great kills and imagery but otherwise crummy plotting. Story issues aside, I think the scene I describe and the senselessness of it fed into, and from, a number of ideas in the Horror New Wave, including Haneke’s Funny Games, Laugier’s Martyrs, and Bustillo and Maury’s L’Interieur (Inside). Aja himself went on to have a great career that continues to this day, with a remake of The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D, and most recently with the breakout crocodile flick, Crawl. But of all these movies, it’s Haute Tension that I most often go back to – the grime, the dirt-streaked lens and kills that lack any kind of reason, and the single scene that never fails to give me the squicks.
I just make sure to switch it off before the end.