Le Jour de Gore: The Slasher Flick Goes Gallic

Marie (Cecile de France) does her part to even out the body count in
Marie (Cecile de France) does her part to even out the body count in "High Tension." (By Toni Salabasev)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005

The French, they are so saucy, but the sauce that does not impress them is ketchup. That's our baby: crude, sluggish red goo, lacking a certain something. Until now. Sacre bleu and mon Dieu , the French have discovered ketchup.

That's ketchup as in movie blood, and the new French film "High Tension" is asplash with the stuff. Are we ready for this? French gore! French slaughter! A French psycho-killer stalking the night! What's he gonna do, criticize you disdainfully while lighting a Gauloise, then order an aperitif? Non, he's going to chop off your head, monsieur.

I don't know what, but to me it seems so wrong. These people invented the little perfect movie about domestic dislocation, love gone awry, full of apercus of wit and insight, epiphanies of the miniature, and now they're doing one where a guy with a buzz saw chases a girl through the woods?

You've seen this movie about two dozen times without the French accent: It's the one about the hulking stranger who shows up in the country house with a dirty face and a wicked sharp blade. The plot unspools something like: Now I kill him, then I kill her, hmmm, let's see, now a him, then a her . . .

It can only be said that if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you like. Director Alexandre Aja and screenwriter Gregory Levasseur add a little frisson of perversity here and there: first a deliciously pretentious filmmaking style, with jagged, showy compositions that look like the covers of bad CDs you'll never play. Then -- oh, I so like this -- there are the filters on the lens that make everything appear photographed through an aquarium darkly so that the various slaughters and atrocities have that so-droll arty patina to them.

But the more amusing perversities are sexual. In American films, it's usually the bad kids, with their hormonal yearnings and wandering, eager hands, who draw the killer, out of some misguided puritan ethic; for the French, or at least for this entry in the slaughter-of-nubile-immorals genre, it's the siren call of same-sex longing (girl style) that brings the bad boy into play.

As the movie has it, Marie and Alex (Cecile de France and an actress called Maiwenn, one name only, thank you very much) are headed out to Alex's family's summer house. Their relationship is somewhat ambiguous, but the lean and muscular Marie appears to have a more than passing fondness for the more feminine Alex, and the director so enjoys locating phallic imagery in the old house that you catch on, even without a PhD from the Sorbonne and nine published pieces in Cahiers du Cinema. Then the killer shows up and starts chopping.

You have to give it to the filmmakers for their contempt of convention: no foreplay, no teasing, no steady buildup of dread, just a knock on the door and the slaughterer is there. Poor Marie, she sees the first murder, hides and watches all the other murders as the guy -- he looks like he's had a few pork sandwiches washed down by a few Stellas in his time -- methodically goes through the house. Papa is the first to perish in the living room, decapitated by a credenza, followed by Mama in the bedroom and little brother in the cornfield. These are gruesome extinctions, particularly Mama's; it looks as though a plastic bottle of Heinz fell into the Cuisinart and splattttttttttttrrrrrrrrrrrr! How do you translate that into French?

Alex is chained up, and it turns out the fellow has special plans for her. He locks her in his truck. The unseen Marie sneaks into the truck before he can pull away; the rampage continues first in a gas station, then on an isolated dirt road in the forest where the inevitable twist arrives, right on schedule, and should surprise no one who has been paying attention and who has seen at least one other horror movie in his or her life.

"High Tension" was originally slated to be one of the few authentic NC-17 releases -- imagine how ghastly that version must have been. Now it's been recut for an R rating, although the ratings board's description is quite a bill of goods: "Graphic, bloody killings, terror, sexual content and language." Is that a description or a review?

High Tension (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic, bloody killings; terror; sexual content and language.

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