'High Tension': Quelle Horreur

Marie (Cecile De France) must escape a sadistic killer in
Marie (Cecile De France) must escape a sadistic killer in "High Tension." (By Toni Salabasev)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005

"HIGH TENSION" is such a bizarre movie that it has completely occupied my thinking for days. Not because it's a good movie, mind you. It's more like the equivalent of a botched tooth extraction with a coat hanger. Some bloody shard remains stuck in an inflamed, fleshy part of my psyche, and it's going to take some serious tugging and tearing to root it out.

Gruesome imagery, you must be thinking. But it matches the grim content of this crazy French movie, which amounts to a sort of horror "Brown Bunny." The movie starts off weird and bad, gets even worse, gets darker and sicker, and then it apparently hires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dig a lunarscape of plot holes and, for the finale, a ditch deep enough for the movie to plunge even farther. To see this movie all the way to the end, you're going to need a miner's helmet.

Two young women, college students off for the summer, are driving to a country home in southern France. One of them is Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco), who is bringing Marie (Cecile De France) to her parents' remote country house, out there Near the Corn. Apparently, Alex is American and Marie is French, but it's unclear since the movie is so badly dubbed. The words you hear have absolutely nothing to do with the lips supposedly issuing them. (I have yet to discard the hunch that they may be extraterrestrials.)

Anyway, both gals check in, Marie meets Alex's mom, pop and kid brother (forget who the actors are, they're going to be lunch meat in minutes), and everyone settles in for the night.

Along comes a filthy, rundown van. Inside is a man who has already shown us in a very disgusting, earlier moment what he likes to do with girls. He pulls up to the house and rings the bell.

Mon Dieu . Dad should not have opened that door.

The rest of the movie is a prolonged, sadistic bloodbath in which this terrifying man (Philippe Nahon), mostly obscured, but suggesting a cross between Joe Cocker and Brendan Gleeson, rips, tears and shreds his way through Alex's kin. (The movie was originally rated NC-17 before it softened a few things for the R.) He captures Alex, ties her in chains and throws her into the back of his van. Marie, who has spent most of the time under a bed in terror, hops aboard in the desperate hope of saving her friend.

When Monsieur Le Slice and Dice stops at a gas station still unaware that Marie's in the back, our victim-heroine (or whatever she is) tries to run to the attendant for help. Of course, she's so inept, she fails to stop the killer. The terror continues.

Director Alexandre Aja, who wrote this with Gregory Levasseur, doesn't have a gift for horror suspense so much as a compleat geek knowledge of all the superior scare flicks that have preceded "High Tension," or "Haute Tension," its French title. He also has an amazing lust for carnage, as if trying to prove that the French can be just as sick as anyone else when they put their minds to it.

Because of a certain twisteroo, which I won't go into, I did catch myself wondering: Hey, did I just see an ingenious movie? But about two- or three-tenths of a second later came the conclusion: naaa h . I chided myself for even considering such a thing and made a mental note not to mention that in the review and thoroughly embarrass myself. (Oh, wait.) I should say, in closing, that there's something far more chilling and scary than the carving of flesh and awful sexual things the killer does with disembodied heads. It occurs right at the beginning, when the women are driving to the country house. They turn on the radio and play French pop music. Not only that, they sing along to it . It's bad enough that the filmmakers want to sicken us with violence, but hey, guys, show a little mercy.

HIGH TENSION (R, 85 minutes) -- Contains very twisted violence, obscenity and sexual content. In sort of French with subtitles and off-kilter dubbing. Area theaters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company