Take Back the Knife: Revisiting “High Tension”

 
 

Take Back the Knife is a monthly column about women in horror by genre writer/director Stacie Ponder.

If you’ve been paying attention to horror cinema over the last decade or so, then you know that French filmmakers are totally bringing it right now. By "it," I mean the gore, the hardcore, and … well, just more. Watching a modern French horror movie is a bit like getting punched in the face by a hammer-wielding chainsaw (let’s pretend that makes sense) — it’s a visceral, unforgettable experience that may well leave you hating yourself and/or the world when it’s all over. That’s not to say it’s all mindless madness — there’s sometimes a message lurking in there, heavy themes about life and death and sex and everything in between.

Though certainly not for the faint of heart, French horror films often cause controversy amongst even the most hardened genre fans; the
most controversial in recent history, perhaps, is Alexandre Aja‘s 2003
film High Tension (aka Haute Tension). When the film was recently
mentioned at my site Final Girl, some readers responded say they’ve
still got a bone or two to pick with it; even though AfterEllen.com has
reviewed High Tension in the past, I think the ongoing fervor both for
and against it makes it worth discussing again.

Now, to talk about
that controversy means to … well, to talk about everything and give away and secrets the movie may hold, so if you’re worried about spoilers, the you should probably go help an old lady cross the street or something while we talk about High Tension.

Here’s a refreshing and brief rundown of the basic plot:

Alex (Maiwenn) and Marie (Cecile de France) are college friends who drive to Alex’s family’s house in the French countryside for a weekend of relaxation and study. The night they arrive, a mysterious man in mysterious overalls (Philippe Nahon) arrives in a mysterious truck and systematically slaughters Alex’s family. Marie, however, manages to stay hidden during the carnage. When the mysterious man hogties Alex and drives away with her in the back of his mysterious truck, Marie pursues, determined to rescue her friend. Eventually Marie and the mysterious man go mano à mano … and then in a sucker punch, a twist reveals that there is no mysterious man. Marie herself is the kidnapper and executioner.

Viewers largely feel cheated, let down, and angry by this seemingly superfluous ‘twist’ ending. After all, for the 80 minutes prior to the reveal, we’re firmly rooting for Marie as she battles this horrible man who appears out of nowhere and without a word kidnaps her best friend and viciously murders her best friend’s family. Not only is it a punch to the gut in terms of the plot, however; at times the twist strains all logistical probability — for example, how can Marie be driving a truck and the car pursuing the truck? High Tension requires some serious suspension of disbelief, but personally, I can totally get on board with it. There’s another reason why some viewers react negatively to the big reveal, though, and that’s because in the end, the film leaves you with a faint taste of homophobia in your mouth and friends, that simply doesn’t taste good.

If you’re wondering why people might slap the H label on the film, I’ll break it down for you:

High Tension opens with a lengthy sequence in the car while Marie and Alex are driving to the family home. During this time, Marie teases Alex about her cavorting with boys. She berates Alex’s decisions, calling her a slut, an idiot, a fool. It’s obvious that the name-calling goes beyond playful banter; Marie isn’t smiling, and her taunts are bordering on cruel. What gives? Is Marie interested in the men Alex is chasing? It’s clear that’s not the case — rather, Marie is interested in Alex. Marie is in love with her friend, a friend that doesn’t share her sexual orientation — how frustrating for Marie. At this point, writer/director Aja introduces the audience to the mysterious man in his truck, using a woman’s severed head to fellate himself.

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