The killer advances, his cracked face partially obscured by the bill of a weathered hat. His heavy boots evoke an eerily rhythmic groan from the blood-stained floorboards.
Alex’s father moves in a prone position toward the stairs, dark blood that once flowed freely through his veins pouring from the gash in his face and collecting in puddles upon the steps.
Silhouetted against the pale light of the door, the killer moves in. With the heel of his leather shoe, he forces the father’s head between two spindles of the staircase. Fear plays across the father’s brow. A broken whimper escapes the bloody mess that moments ago had been his mouth.
The killer angles a wooden shelving unit at the father’s head. He presses his muscular upper-body against its side. It heaves under the heft of the accoutrement. The dark wood collides with the father’s head separating it from his shoulders. Life fluid gushes from the mangled flesh.
The term visceral is used freely in discussion of horror cinema. When done properly, fright films stir the guts of viewers. They astonish audiences by inducing feelings of intense dread. The massacre that opens Alexandre Aja’s 2003 blood-soaked shocker Haute Tension, is an attack on the senses. Time slows, sounds dampen, muscles tense, hearts pound out rhythms that conform to the manner of punishment doled out on screen.
A pioneer of the New French Extremity movement of the early 2000s, Aja is recognized today as a significant contributor to cult cinema. The magnificent combination of stomach-churning suspense, unsettling photography, and breathtaking violence on display in Haute Tension established the shock and awe filmmaker as an artist to keep an eye on.
The plot of the film is thin. Marie (Cecile de France) joins her friend Alexia (Maiwenn) for a couple days of rest and relaxation at a remote farmhouse. The peaceful getaway turns into a violent struggle to survive when a psychotic killer (Philippe Nahon) shows up at the door.
Aja spends very little time developing character before plunging into blood-curdling territory. Dizzying violence and intense displays of carnage do not propel the story but rather astonish the viewer. The audience’s desire to look away is bested only by their morbid curiosity to watch on.
The sprawling, weather-beaten farmhouse wears the color of earth and wood. Ill-defined shadows dance ominously between muted hallways and melt into darkness around every corner. Marie watches her friend surreptitiously as she slips into the shower before retiring to her upper-floor room to masturbate. As she approaches orgasm, the fiendish madman draws near outside. A link is established between the adversarial characters that will carry through to the end of the picture.
The sound of screaming brings an abrupt end to Marie’s self-gratification. She rearranges the room to make it look as if it’s unoccupied and hides beneath the bed. Aja ratchets up the tension. Marie lies on her back, camouflaged by the darkness as the hellish maniac makes his way into the room. She trembles with fear as he puts his hand to the radiator. Her eyes bend in terror as he runs his fingers across the bed.
It is a horrifying sequence that plays upon our worst nightmares. It captures perfectly the sensation of a dream state. Adrenaline floods Marie’s system. She struggles to keep quiet, yet is too frightened to make a sound all at the same time. She is trapped with no of hope of escape as a large monster toys with her.
The eyes-averting nastiness of the French slasher provides a surfeit of visceral responses. It also speaks to the vulnerable parts that exist within each and every one of us (what Alexander West calls “The pliability of the self”).
The 2000s were a disconcerting time for people living in America. Contested elections, unforeseen economic crises and unparalleled terrorist attacks left citizens feeling confused and exposed. The national ethos had become tarnished. No longer were we immune to attacks from hostile armies. Societal freedoms and the promise of upward social mobility were compromised. Panic and hysteria ensued. People fortified their homes; gun sales spiked; prescriptions for antidepressants reached an all-time high. Somewhere amid the violent excitement, Americans lost a bit of themselves. Our commitment to humanity took a back seat to our pledge for revenge.
Haute Tension is a French-produced feature, but it speaks to the moral conscious of America during the noughties. People were afraid. Their apprehension was bolstered every time they turned on the nightly news. Fear-based reports targeting the anxieties of the public led each broadcast. Gone were the days of journalistic integrity. The goal was no longer to report the news with accuracy and efficiency, but rather to generate profit.
Film directors like Eli Roth, James Wan and Alexandre Aja exploited the emotional state of the nation creating visions of profound horror with complete disregard for audience sentimentality. Movies like Hostel, Saw and Haute Tension pushed the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable in film. “You think what you saw on the news was bad? Wait until you get a load of this.”
Their efforts were not always welcomed. Labeled as torture porn, many of their pictures opted for shock value over intellectual stimulation. Haute Tension however, blends its eye-gouging, throat-splitting, paint-the-walls red carnage with a level of artistry not found in other films of its type. The movie is washed in dim blues and gloomy oranges. On the DVD commentary, Aja explains that the title Haute Tension has two English translations: High Tension and High Voltage. His attempts to create a fast-paced, paralyzingly frightening viewing experience for audiences if fully realized. The opening attack alone is a veritable tour de force. The sound design of the film strengthens the scares. With its low pitch cadence and offbeat rhythms it intensifies the dreadful mood of the piece.
The movie is a spectacular achievement of style and extreme violence that stands out among its gory brethren. From the brutal opening attack until the film’s final moments, Haute Tension forces the viewer to withstand nightmarish fits of helplessness and anxiety.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
The success of Haute Tension provided Alexandre Aja the opportunity to direct the American remake of The Hills Have Eyes. The movie was a huge money maker and furthered Aja’s favorable reputation. The supernatural Mirrors was a bit of a setback, but Aja got back on track with another popular remake, Piranha. The movie gleefully combined over-the-top gore, gratuitous nudity and schlocky scares en route to an 80 million dollar payday. The New French Extremity movement raged on with gorily entertaining titles such as Inside and Martyrs.