Walking a tight line: ‘High Tension’ slashes its way to gore and glory, but its finish fizzles

“High Tension”

Lions Gate Films

Directed by Alexandre Aja

Written by Aja and Gregory Levasseur

Starring: Cecile De France, Maiwenn and Philippe Nahon

Rated R/91 minutes

Opens June 10, 2005

Two out of four stars

Until the last 15 minutes, “High Tension” is a gritty, no-fat-around-the-edges exercise in sweaty, slasher gore. Its simplicity is its charm-as charming as a movie in which a guy gets his head rammed off by an armoire can be. It’s all down hill from there.

Audiences ought to wait until “High Tension” comes out on DVD-maybe by that time its awful English dub will be fixed, and the filmmakers will have included an alternate ending. The ancient clich, “it was all a dream…” would have been better than the cruel joke awaiting moviegoers at the culmination of this film.

College girls Marie (played by Cecile De France) and Alex (played by Maiween) shack up with Alex’s parents in a homey cottage, miles away from anyone who isn’t a backwoods, hillbilly serial killer.

The film’s opening scenes are quick and to the point. That’s the good news.

The bad news? The original French soundtrack has been dubbed into awkward English that will make your teeth grind. There’s even a line in which Alex says something like, “My parents speak pretty bad French, so they speak in English most of the time.” How convenient! So what’s her explanation for why everybody’s lips move independently from their words?

Never mind.

Thankfully, once the killing starts, dialogue is pretty much reduced to whimpers and screams-the universal language of the slasher film.

Someone rings the doorbell late at night. Alex’s dad answers the door and so sets into motion his unfortunate run-in with the armoire. The killer (played by Philippe Nahon) is a thick, brutish man whose jumpsuit must have come off the Extra-Squeaky rack. He slowly and methodically goes about killing Alex’s family. Through luck and pluck, Marie avoids discovery. Alex, on the other hand, is bound, gagged and stuffed in the back of the killer’s van-the kind of rusty, gothic vehicle that exists only in horror movies or maybe in the daydreams of Tobe Hooper. Marie obligatorily runs to the rescue.

“High Tension” strips the slasher-horror genre down to its basics. Marie finds herself in one nasty set piece after another, narrowly evading capture, hiding, sweating and trying desperately not to scream. Simple as that-and it’s effectively squirm inducing.

The gore is also top-notch. A buzz saw and a stick wrapped in barbed wire play important supporting roles.

What seems like an admirably old-fashioned gore-fest takes a turn for the worse in the final act. Yes, we get another one of those trendy “twists” that forces us to reconsider everything that came before it. It is a surprise, but only because the audience will gape at the audacity of the filmmakers for even trying such a thing.

The twist completely negates everything that came before it. Sure, a slasher movie is nothing more than audience manipulation, but this one was upfront about it until the end, which turns unnecessarily perverse.

“High Tension” has the right stuff-blood, guts and a tough heroine-but it loses its nerve at the end. It should have stuck to its guns instead of falling back on psychological trickery.

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