High Tension (Haute Tension) is a French horror-thriller film directed by Alexander Aja and starring Cécile de France (L’Art (délicat) de la séduction) and Maïwenn (The Fifth Element). After a well-received screening at the Midnight Madness section of the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, it was acquired by indie distributor Lions Gate Entertainment. It has all the gore and suspense you would expect from a company that released movies like Saw and The Descent, with a story that may make the disturbing scenes worth it for even the more squeamish viewer, akin to Aja’s 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. It is a good bridge for the casual horror fan that may be interested in extreme horror films, and is considered a must-see film for extreme fans. Major plot points will be discussed, as well as parallels between the screenplay and Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity, so if you have not seen this movie or read Koontz’s 1995 suspense novel be prepared for spoilers in this review.
Best friends Alex and Marie are spending the weekend at Alex’s parents’ home in the country to study. After Marie receives a warm welcome from Alex’s family, the house settles in for what should be a cozy night in the French countryside, but it quickly turns into their worst nightmare. Almost immediately there were similarities between this and Intensity, the story of college students Chyna and Laura, who visit Laura’s family for a long weekend at their farm in Napa Valley. Before long the scenes were undeniably derivative, down to how both Chyna and Marie escape detection after the home is broken into ,and the way characters Laura and Alex are restrained and assaulted. The film gave the scenes and interactions a more grungy feel, with the girl’s friendship based on raunchy, party girl banter rather than the book counterpart’s sisterly bond. Another more gritty aspect was the film’s version of the killer, which appears to be a filthy deranged hillbilly instead of Koontz’s charismatic and methodical Edgler Vess, though both killers are equally cruel and brutal.
The film spends almost the entirety of it’s script following the book closely, from the murder of everyone in the house except for the two girls, to Laura/Alex’s apparent kidnapping, to Chyna/Marie’s stealthy car pursuit after the killer to a remote gas station. Here the stories finally break away from one another. In the book it is revealed that Laura is already dead and Chyna had risked everything to save her friend in vain, which sends Chyna back in chase of the killer to seek justice. On screen, we discover that the murderer was Marie all along, who is in love with (and obsessed with) Alex. This creates many plot holes in earlier scenes, but may have still been an interesting take on the character had Alex been given any of Chyna’s history. Intensity, though vicious and grisly, is the story of a woman who survives extreme trauma and chooses to be strong, kind, and open to love in spite of a world that has been cruel to her. High Tension could have been the other possibility, the tale of a person who let a terrible upbringing drive them to do terrible things, but without the dark past it falls flat and comes across as sexist and homophobic. Marie’s love is unrequited, so if Marie can’t have Alex, no one can. It may have also been an engaging interpretation to see the strong female lead from Intensity portrayed as queer, as it would have been a good way show the strength of the girl’s bond in a short amount of time, but to make her a disturbed villain does nothing for the story except perpetuate the stereotypes that women are emotionally unstable and queer relationships are unhealthy.
The cinematography is beautiful, with unique shots that amp up the suspense by giving the audience the necessary sense of urgency, and creating both physical and mental claustrophobia. All the effects are stellar, and done by makeup artist, who has acquired prestige through his effects in movies such as Zombi 2, Dune, and The House by the Cemetery. De Rossi’s effects combined with the camera angle choices result in memorable, chilling death scenes. High Tension is a noteworthy film for horror buffs to watch, though if you’re looking for the same fast-paced thriller with a strong, almost Ripley-like female lead, you may want to read the unofficial book.