Specifically, this is my relevant axiom: the shattering of movie decorum represents the highest aesthetic achievement of the horror movie format.
Furthermore, said shattering of silver screen taboos must be internally consistent; and it must be intellectually honest.
What I mean to express with this thesis is two-fold. First, the way a movie scares us -- the manner in which form reflects content - is paramount for me in determining the artistic supremacy of a horror film. (Again, that's my bias).
Secondly, the best way to accomplish this high-minded goal is to manipulate the form to one exemplary end; to deploy film grammar to shatter our long-established expectations; to shatter over-a-century of accepted movie decorum.
Why? Well, the (impressive) result when cinematic form transgresses right alongside cinematic content is something of a miraculous alchemy, an unequaled frisson. What you get, simply, is an audience held in breathless fear; an audience unnerved; an audience squeezed tight in the fist of a skilled director.
Because if you can't count on a lifetime of established movie convention to protect you, you are - literally - "at risk" as you watch a horror film, and therefore wholly susceptible to shock, suspense and surprise. You are putty...readily molded and easily squeezed because you have lost the bearings of your previous movie-going experience.
I bring to the table two examples in support of my axiom.
First, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960), which shattered expectations in a most singular fashion. Specifically, Psycho left an earlier generation of movie audiences absolutely shaken by the wanton killing off of the lead character, the protagonist (Marion Crane) just part way through the film.
The audience - conditioned to expect the survival of the lead character (and a star to boot, in the form of Janet Leigh) - suddenly felt rudderless because their "heroine" was murdered in the shower. Suddenly, it seemed that nothing was off-limits and audiences were authentically terrified because no one could count-on what was coming next. The ensuing terror resulted not only because of the exceptional technique of shock editing in the shower murder sequence (which was, obviously, unimpeachable), but because the audience had invested Marion with all their trusts and hopes; they had powerfully identified with her. When she was gone, nobody in the audience knew what to expect.
The Janet Leigh "trick" was, put simply, a brilliant and historic transgression of form that shattered all previous established criterion of movie decorum. After pulling this trick, Hitchcock could, yes indeed, play the audience like a piano.
The second example is perhaps less well-revered, but no less worth championing. I refer to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a trail-blazing horror film which raised the bar in the horror genre by the none-too-simple act of denying the audience one important thing: the critical act of learning.
Ponder this for a moment. Learning is an essential component in the understanding of a film's narrative, and an audience usually learns important facts from the story structure, or through expositional dialogue offered by the dramatis personae. The narrative of a typical horror film even provides important clues as protagonists expire (revealing a killer's attire, or suggesting a motive).
The act of learning universally continues as a film's plot marches forward through the comfortable, familiar three-act structure. To bring up Psycho again, Janet Leigh's character dies - yes - but along came Martin Balsam's character Arbogast, who probed Norman Bates' story and continued to develop the points of the plot. When Arbogast was killed, a man named Loomis (Marion's lover) picked up the trail and the act of learning about the Bates mystery was transferred once more, to a new lead character. Janet Leigh was long gone, but the narrative developed and climaxed with reason, rationality and explanation.
By contrast, there is no learning whatsoever in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre...which is why it remains such a potent horror film. Knowledge does not pass from one protagonist to the next, and none of the film's violent acts are explained, let alone rationalized. Pam, Kirk, Jerry and Franklin - four of the five main characters - are murdered by Leatherface's chainsaw without even knowing who they are dealing with, actually. They are killed without learning -- and without warning their friends of the danger -- and so the audience does not learn anything either. Because there is no learning, the plot never advances - it stalls in murderous rage (like Leatherface's silver kitchen door slammed repeatedly in our faces) -- and Sally is left in a state of siege and panic, right along with the viewing audience. We're hooked. Hooper''s got us!
As Wes Craven once said of Tobe Hooper in relation to the director's first film, Hooper "can convince you you're really at risk in a theater;" meaning that by shattering decorum (the three act structure), Hooper has made us in Chainsaw feel intensely vulnerable (and therefore susceptible to the film's horror). Playwright L.M. Kit Carson said it another way, but also well: "Hooper was a scare-director who was methodically unsafe, who the audience (you) finally just couldn't trust."
There have been many good horror films made in the last few years, but few authentically great ones, and part of the reason why this is so, I submit, is that few modern directors are able (or willing) to legitimately shatter decorum and transgress in a bold fashion that is both a.) internally consistent and b.)intellectually honest. Few directors are able to build on Hitchcock's success the way Hooper did. Few have pinpointed that "new way" to cross a line that has previously gone uncrossed.
Off the top of my head, I can readily think of two horror films of recent vintage that have indeed made that very attempt - even if the results weren't always stellar. Those films are Wolf Creek (2005) and -- no surprise here -- High Tension. Both of these admirable films, whatever their specific and particular drawbacks, at least made the noble attempt to dramatize a horror story in a new and transgressive fashion. I applaud both of them for making this attempt, for at least trying. Yes, it's my "A" for effort theory of reviewing movies: I can see what both these films were attempting to achieve, and -- as I wrote in my opening paragraph -- they were seeking the highest aesthetic achievement in horror. Good for them. They went for broke.
Now, onto the specifics of High Tension. And yes, I'm a wordy bastard, but to understand High Tension (and my criticism of it), I think you need to comprehend exactly where I'm coming from. If you haven't seen High Tension, go see it, and then come back and read the rest of this review, all right? Cuz I'm going to talk specifics. A lot of specifics.
Okay. High Tension, directed by Alexandre Aja, is the story of an attractive young woman named Marie (Cecile De France) who retires to the family farmhouse of a lovely friend, Alex (Maiwenn) to cram for finals. We see the women on their car trip to the rural estate, and Marie awakes from a disturbing dream while Alex drives on the lonely road. "It was me," Marie explains the nightmare. "I was running from me..."
At the farmhouse, Marie meets Alex's nice family (parents and a young brother), but is brooding about the fact that Alex recently slept with a womanizing boyfriend. From several non-verbal hints, we learn pretty clearly that Marie is a lesbian, and one highly-attracted to her roommate. She is in love with Alex. But Alex is icily -- even callously -- oblivious to her affections.
At the end of a long day, Marie rests in the upstairs bedroom and -- after inadvertently spying Alex naked in the shower -- begins to masturbate. Simultaneously, a grotesque, dirty man drives up to the idyllic farmhouse in a filthy old truck. The headlights of his truck cast a harsh, ugly light across the house. A beacon of danger to come. Very quickly, the man gains entrance to the house and violently murders Alex's family members. He decapitates Alex's dad, slits the mom's throat, and shoots the little brother in the back. Then the male killer abducts Alex herself. Marie has managed to stay hidden throughout the terrifying massacre, and steals away into the back of the truck, where she attempts to comfort Alex. The killer is driving Alex somewhere to kill her, and Marie hopes to save her...
A night of deep terror ensues, as Marie battles the stranger near a greenhouse. Late in the game, however, Marie comes to realizes something shocking. She realizes that she is -- in fact -- the murderer herself! The "man" is an alter-ego of sorts -- not real -- and she is clearly stark raving insane. The film then reveals flashbacks of the farmhouse massacre and instead of seeing the madman commit the crimes this time, we now see it was Marie all along.
High Tension is a brutal, pacey and effectively-directed horror movie. It looks terrific, it involves you in the protagonist's plight, and it makes you feel entirely uneasy throughout the first hour (or about 68 minutes). However, my concern with High Tension remains the fact that the brazen twist, the act here that shatters movie decorum -- that Marie is actually the mad killer -- is not, in my opinion, either a.) internally consistent with the preceding hour, or b.) intellectually honest.
Before I go into the reasons why I think the final act of the film does not play fair with the audience, allow me to explain the reasons I do admire aspects of the film a great deal. First and foremost, I can detect what the clever filmmakers are doing with High Tension, and I commend them for attempting to make the next great transgressive horror film.
The film they sought to make, I believe, is one in which we witness the ultimate evolution (or perhaps punctuation) of the popular 1980s slasher paradigm. After all, this is the film that firmly places the Final Girl and the Mad Killer - formerly dedicated opponents, always at odds -- in the same physical body. In other words, High Tension is very much like seeing Michael Myers unmasked only to reveal Jamie Lee Curtis (or Laurie Strode) beneath the Shatner mask.
This development has been a long time coming in the genre: the Norman-Bates-ification of the feminine/masculine Final Girl archetype. In thirty years, the Final Girl has gone from damsel-in-distress and lucky survivor (Halloween), to resourceful fighter and combatant (Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street with her home-made booby traps), to maternal/sisterly defender (Ripley in Aliens; Kirsty in Hellraiser 2; Regina in Night of the Comet) to the ultimate savior of the world itself (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
With no more "outer" worlds to conquer, the Final Girl turns inward in High Tension, confronting a roiling, resentful, splintered psychology. The monster is no longer an "outside" force but rather one determinedly located inside. In High Tension, we are clearly meant to understand that Marie's sexual desire for Alex is the root cause of her murderous other-persona.
Again, this aspect of the film is very true to horror movie lineage: repression never stays down in the genre; it bolts back up -- like a killer from the dead -- as psychological symptoms...or as murderous action. Here, Marie's repression has created a rampaging monster. One who is, rather significantly, a physically-ugly male.
If the Final Girl has often represented virginity and virtue in the horror genre; the killer has many times represented, the opposite. The (male) killer is often dirty (like Freddy) or simultaneously repellent/attractive (like Pinhead). And he is usually depicted "penetrating" something...usually nubile flesh. The male killer is thus the catalyst that activates the Final Girl. Whether with a drill, a machete or a chain saw, it is the killer who instigates. When Marie is driven to murderous rage in High Tension, her insanity configures itself as an ugly man to commit the untoward deeds...the dirtiest, filthiest man imaginable. The Final Girl is left merely as a witness, a bystander, as part of her exorcises this boogeyman-side.
Frankly, this is a terrific and thoughtful conceit, and I respect and admire High Tension for executing so inventive a notion: the killer and his quarry being one-in-the-same biologically, but divided psychologically. Where I fault High Tension, however, is in cheating the specifics of this "twist" (this movie-decorum shattering situation). The form of the twist doesn't ring true. It doesn't smell right; even if thematically we can see the validity of it.
Again, I must be clear: High Tension builds a strong thematic case for the splintering of Marie's psyche, first by the opening dream about her "running" from herself; and secondly by linking the arrival of the killer with Marie's unfulfilled sexual desire, specifically the masturbation sequence. Gut wise, we can believe this. The character motive seems right, or at least believable.
But visually? In terms of film grammar? I submit that High Tension fails the smell test rather egregiously on this front. Film is primarily a visual art term, and we watch in High Tension, as Marie witnesses the brutal massacre of Alex's family. At one point, we even adopt Marie's point of view (film grammar lingo for her perspective: the first person subjective shot) inside a closet -- through slats, no less -- as Mom gets her throat slit. So if the High Tension twist is to be believed...this shot is a lie. We were not seeing through Marie's eyes at all. She was never even in the closet. She was outside the closet, doing the killing.
I might be willing to accept this (depending on whether I've been drinking...) but there are more egregious issues of internal inconsistency too. We see Alex and Marie arrive at the house in a car. We see the killer arrive separately in a truck (and his headlights cast blue illumination on the family pets [a dog and a parrot]). Now, realistically, only one of these realities can be true. If Marie is actually the only visitor to the farm (the murderer being a figment of her sexual jealousy and rage) then there can only be either a car or a truck, but not both. If the truck, like the male killer, is only a figment of Marie's psyche -- her murderous imagination -- then how come the light reflects on the animals? Non-existent head-lights don't cast light on real life objects, do they?
But the incongruity goes further. The killer (the male) throws Alex into the truck and drives away. If there is no truck in reality, then where is Alex...actually kept during this spell of the movie? Regardless of whom is actually chasing her, a male killer or Marie acting as the male killer, Alex has to physically be somewhere at all times. If the truck doesn't exist, then where is Alex while Marie confronts the male killer? The film's final chase finds Marie grabbing a circular saw device from the truck and chasing down Alex with it. The saw came from inside the truck.
But there is no truck, right? It's all in Marie's mind. So what is Marie really chasing Alex with, and where did she get it? The saw may be family, but it can't come out of nowhere.
See my problem here? Again and again, High Tension confronts the audience with events that represent physical impossibilities. Marie can't have arrived in the farmhouse in both a car (with Alex driving) and in a truck. If she didn't come in the truck (just the car), then how does she take a saw out of the truck (that was never there?) If she followed Alex later, in the truck (not in the car), then her dream (about chasing herself) didn't happen; and she never actually even met Alex's family. She never saw Alex showering then, either, and thus her anger was never stoked (hence activating her alter ego).
Even the details of the family massacre don't stand up to scrutiny. The Dad hears the doorbell ring and walks down the stairs to the front door. He lets (the male killer) in. At this point, Marie is upstairs. If Marie actually did the killing (as the explanatory flashback at the denouement reveals), she wouldn't have had to come from the outside of the house at all...she was already inside.. And if she didn't come from outside, the father wouldn't have walked down the stairs in response to the sound of the doorbell (which, as audience members, we hear). So who rang the doorbell? Doorbells don't ring themselves, and neither do angry psyches.
The two realities that are depicted visually for us in High Tension do not fit together -- they are not internally consistent with one another. More to the point, they actually contradict each other. For the film to work, we would have to believe that objects (like the circular saw, or the truck) appear out of nowhere...and then go back to nowhere. The only answer that allows for the possibility of both versions of reality is that the entire film consists of a fever dream; a fantasy.
Marie's early nightmare and awakening might be a reason for favoring this dream interpretation. Also, if I'm not mistaken, in the killer's first scene, the severed head he tosses on the ground (from his truck) belongs to Alex (a character not as yet dead in the film, in either version of reality). So perhaps everything in High Tension is a fantasy, the lunatic thoughts of a mad, jealous woman. Perhaps we are seeing the whole film from inside Marie's mind.
I guess would buy that (for a dollar!) but I don't like it, and I already have buyer's remorse. If everything that we see -- or that seems -- is but a dream within a dream, then nothing in High Tension matters. Nothing at all. It might as well be set on Mars, because there really are no rules. Pigs could fly out of Marie's butt in one scene, for instance, and that too would fit "the dream." The dream explanation covers a plethora of trespasses, but it also castrates the movie.
Because for a scary movie to succeed in scaring us...we must relate to it. We must identify with the characters. We must believe the characters are in danger. We must believe that the threat of the killer is real, even if the identity of the killer is a secret or a surprise. We must fear for the heroine, even if the heroine has a secret. But if High Tension is all a dream, as we must conclude, there is nothing at stake. And so nothing is frightening. Nothing is scary.
In a way, High Tension looks a lot like what some people accuse M. Night Shymalan films of being: poorly-constructed plots that hinge on a stupid twist ending. High Tension even invokes the oft-derided (in Shymalan films) explanatory flashback, revealing Marie killing Alex's family and a convenience store clerk.
For me, this flashback scene is a bridge too far. High Tension stages the initial murder scenes with both the male killer and Marie in the same proximate space (often just feet from each other). But then it goes back and says that no, only Marie was there doing the killing, therefore undercutting the dream interpretation I mentioned; the only interpretation that could possibly make sense of the proceedings. In other words, the movie tries to have it both ways.
Let me put it another way. How would you feel if in Psycho, you really saw Mother Bates killing Marion in the shower, and during the attack, Norman came in and tried to wrestle the knife from Dear Old Mum. Only later - in a flashback -- you found out that there was no Mother there at all. Thus nobody for whom Norman to wrestle. Thus the earlier scene was a lie.
You'd feel cheated, wouldn't you? You'd feel tricked. And that is why, in addition to being internally inconsistent, High Tension is intellectually dishonest. Could it have been a different way? Yes, it could have, and that's one of the most frustrating things about the film. This movie could have been effectively streamlined to remain more or less consistnet. You could have removed the truck all together, the circular saw too, and other elements to boot. In doing so, you could have told entirely the same story, but in a way that was more believable, and internally consistent. What if there was just one vehicle, and the weapon of choice was something from the farmhouse? That would eliminate this sort of chicken-and-egg argument, wouldn't it? What if -- at times- -- Marie blacked out, and during those times, we saw the male killer commiting murders? Then -- again, there would be some wiggle room for the ending to feel intellectually honest. And the final explanatory flashback would have been a humdinger instead a WTF moment.
Roger Ebert awarded High Tension one paltry star, but not on the basis of its impossibilities, rather on the brutal nature of the piece (and the bad dubbing). Despite all my reservations, I would still say the film is worthy of at least two-and-a-half stars (out of four) for style. Still, the final act "surprise" disqualifies the film from earning a strong recommendation from me. I've watched the film twice now, because viewers I respect like the film, and buy the twist, seemingly hook, line and circular saw. On the second viewing, even Kathryn said yeah, she would buy it -- as Marie's long, unending delusion. Maybe I'm stubborn. I still don't think the movie plays fair.
Bottom line: Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took the genre ball and ran with it; evolving the horror movie format in the process and reaching their goal line. High Tension gets the ball, runs forward a bit, and then fumbles it. By forcing viewers to accept physical impossibilities or even countenance the idea that the entire movie is a dream, High Tension becomes less scary, less horrific, less involving. We step back and withold disbelief instead of becoming absorbed. We distance ourselves from the material instead of embracing it. And that dilutes the terror.
Overall, it was a good game, but that last act -- it's a flag on the play.