Tuesday, November 9, 2010

High Tension (2003)

by Jimmy "Ah, the life of a frog" Callaway

As much as this movie ends up pissing me off, I certainly can't take away the fact that these guys really did their homework. Part of me wants to say this is because they're French, and so they can come at this pretty tired formula with a fresh perspective, not nearly as mired down in the culture that spawned this brand of flick as Americans would be. But frankly, that's too easy an out for American filmmakers and artists in general. I'm sure the cross-cultural discussion has its place here, but mostly I think High Tension came out so well because these guys are just really good at their jobs.

In all the reading up I've done on slasher movies and horror in general, the Gaze is a topic oft discussed. Usually male, the Gaze affords certain characters massive power over others, especially those who do not have it. A ten-cent version is like this: the victims in Halloween are seen by Michael Myers, but they do not see him until it is too late. Jamie Lee Curtis' character eventually does see Michael and as such is granted power over him. And you can pretty much cut-and-paste any slasher movie into that formula, and it usually works, to varying degrees of thematic success.

Of course, it's assumed that this sub-text wasn't even conscious on the part of the filmmakers. I even read somewhere once where John Carpenter said as much, that the elements and plot progression present in Halloween just made sense to him as both film viewer and maker. Whether or not this is true for Carpenter or anybody else is irrelevant, as author intent does not carry that much weight in a post-modernist reading of any work. But as a fan myself, I will say that once that theory has been posited, you are a slack-ass motherfucker if you're gonna make a slasher flick and not be as read up on the genre as some know-it-all blogger type like me.

Director Alexandre Aja and his co-writer, Gregory Levasseur, are far from being slack-asses of any kind. The Gaze is ever-present in this flick and is used to its utmost without calling undue attention to itself. This very fact is another thing that sets High Tension apart from slasher films of any era: it is unforced and natural, yet still declares itself very much a slasher movie by simply having all of the necessary elements in place. It's unbelievable almost: a modern-day slasher flick that is self-aware without being overtly self-referential. What is the world coming to?

Anyways. College pals Marie and Alex are off to the south of France to Marie's parents' farmhouse for some quality study-time and, in Alex's case, quality touching-her-naughty-bits time. On their way there through the spooky, moonlit cornfields, we have set up for us through the dialogue a very distinct sexual tension between the two. Again, two major thematic standards: the strangeness of the rural community versus an urban one, as well as sexual tension riding high beneath the surface. None of this is ever overt; the filmmakers trust that you, the audience, has had enough experience with this set-up, as well you probably should by the beginning of the 21st century.

Marie introduces Alex to her sweet little family and all seems right with the world. Alex even gets to see Marie taking a shower, and all seems right in my pants. Here again, the Gaze: Alex as the outsider feels powerless here in Marie's innocent little world. We don't know much about Alex's background, but we can assume from her gruff and cynical demeanor that life's been a bit rough on the lass, although if it's helped her keep in the excellent shape she's in, she's got no complaints really. So this seemingly innocuous peep session she pulls on Marie's bathing time is a way for her to sort of lay claim back to power.

This parallelism between Alex, the final girl, and the killer (credited only as "Le tueur" ["The killer"] and played creepily brilliantly by Phillipe Nahon) also runs rampant through the movie, and while it's far from the first movie to explore this idea, it is the first of its kind to do so in quite a while, as far as I can tell. And again it all comes down to the Gaze. When Le tueur shows up in the dead of night and begins slashering the hell out of everybody, Alex is only able to spare herself by not being seen (cf. H.M. Government Public Service Film No. 42: "How Not to Be Seen"). Not only that, but she is able to attempt to help Marie escape because she can see Le tueur.

This comes up again as the cat-and-mouse continues outside the house. Le tueur throws the shackled Marie into his truck and takes off, not realizing he also has Alex back there. When he stops for gas, Alex attempts to get the gas station attendant to call for help. But she needs to hide as Le tueur comes in to pay for his gas and spread some more of his creepiness around. Now, Jimmy the gas station guy has seen Alex, he sees the blood on Le tueur's hands, he now has the power to stop Le tueur. But unfortunately for Jimmy, Le tueur has seen him see Alex, even if he hasn't himself seen her. It sounds convoluted a bit, I know, but it all equals Jimmy getting an ax to the chest like his name was Scatman Crothers.

A bit about Le tueur: the faceless killer is another slasher standard that High Tension does well without making sure we know how well it's doing. Le tueur does not wear a hockey mask or the like to signal to us that he is indeed The Other. But he does wear workman's overalls (watch out for them lower classes, kids!) and a ball cap pulled almost completely over his face. Aja films him from angles so that his face is constantly in shadows, and Nahon's face itself has that jowly yet wooden look that makes him look more like Michael Myers than Michael Myers does.

But oh. That plot twist. You couldn't leave well enough alone, could you, movie?

To say the plot twist comes across as cliché would not be doing it (in)justice, but that's exactly what it is. And the fact that things were moving along so well only heightens how much I wanna spank this movie for pulling this shit. Yeah, it's kinda clever, but it invalidates a lot of what's happened before and just generally acts as a turd in the swimming pool. Obviously, I don't wanna give anything away, and I also don't wanna take a dump on this movie, as much as I might feel it deserves it at this point. I guess all I can say is nobody's perfect. As well-executed as all the slasher tropes are in this movie, to let one sneak past the goalie like this is understandable, I suppose, or at least not the worst crime to be committed. But man, it really bums me out.

All in all, though, High Tension is almost exactly the sort of movie Let's Kill Everybody! has a raging boner for. The murder scenes are unflinching, no fancy camera tricks here. The pace is pitch-perfect; like I said, the whole film moves along at a brisk, natural clip that wholly sucks you in. And it's just plainly and simply really goddamn scary. It's been a while since we've had an actual good movie here at the LKE!, and all complaints aside, this flick has really raised my hopes for more to come.

Probably not such a great thing, now that I think about it.