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French for fear

High Tensions Marie (Ccile de France) looks - cute, kicks - ass.
  • High Tensions Marie (Ccile de France) looks cute, kicks ass.

High Tension (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown, Cinemark 16, Chapel Hills 15, Carmike 10
This brutal, unrelenting slab of terror is a throwback to old-school, realistic "slasher" films that have fallen out of fashion here in the U.S. Ironically, it took France -- perhaps the country least likely to make such a film -- to revive the genre in a high-quality production.

High Tension follows two young women to a creaky farmhouse in Southern France. Marie (Ccile de France) intends to stay with her university classmate Alex (Mawenn Le Besco), and together the two plan to hit the books amid the peace and quiet of Alex's rustic family home.

But things go awry almost from the moment the pair crosses the threshold into the old house. Dark sexual themes descend. A jumpsuit-wearing truck driver is seen having sex with a skull in his ancient truck.

Just past nightfall, the truck driver arrives and proceeds to execute Alex's parents and dog with axes and a huge rusty razor.

Marie, who wears her hair boyishly short and clothes tight over her athletic physique, becomes Alex's last hope to escape. Marie daringly hides from the killer and then dodges into Alex's room, where her friend is gagged and tied with chains.

In an extreme game of cat-and-mouse, Marie narrowly escapes detection and manages to sneak into the killer's truck just before he drives off with Alex.

At this point, filmgoers find themselves up to their eyeballs in gore and pain. There's no tiptoeing around with subtle plot shadings -- this film goes straight for the jugular.

Director Alexandre Aja admits the film is an unabashed homage to slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. He succeeds in pummeling moviegoers with 90 minutes of mounting tension and blunt violence by keeping dialogue to an absolute minimum and concentrating on physical movement and a wicked score. The superbly chosen music creates an ideally dull, painful throb.

The emphasis on physical sensation is fortunate, as it's difficult to satisfactorily dub English over French. Aja selectively dubs English, permitting the French audio in certain scenes. This might be a little jarring, but it's much better than reading subtitles throughout a horror flick.

For all the sinister genius in most of the movie, the final 15 minutes may leave some viewers frustrated.

Without spoiling too much of the ending, Aja deploys the kind of monster left hook that M. Night Shyamalan perfected in The Sixth Sense, turning the film on its head. This worked in Sixth, but the plot device has been worn thin by lesser films such as Identity and Hide and Seek, and many moviegoers are just plain sick of it.

Another problem: As part of this monster hook, Marie's lesbian obsession with Alex escalates to an absurd degree, and the film comes off as somewhat homophobic.

It's too bad that such a freight train of pain is derailed in the final minutes. Nonetheless, that a director from France could not only surmount that country's tendency for chatty slice-of-life films but also secure wide distribution in the States is quite a feat. And, for the most part, this is top-notch horror, guaranteed to freak out anyone this side of the asylum.

-- Dan Wilcock

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