AKA HAUTE TENSION, SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE
Running Time: 91 mins
Releases on 22nd January 2024
Second Sight Limited Edition Dual Format 4K UHD & Blu-Ray is available for pre-order
Also available on standalone standard edition 4K UHD or Blu-Ray
Reviewed by Dr Lenera
Marie and Alex are two friends. Last night they partied till dawn and Alex even pulled a guy, to Marie’s annoyance and perhaps jealousy, but now they’re cool, heading for a remote farmhouse on the prairie where they can study. Alex’s parents, who live there, are very welcoming, as is her younger brother Tom. However, there’s a serial killer on the loose nearby, and his truck soon parks up right outside the house. Instead of studying, the two girls soon find themselves engaged in a desperate struggle for survival against a murderous psychopath….
Well the title might be boastful and therefore be arrogant, but it was aptly chosen [though I first saw this film under the stupid name Switchblade Romance]. High Tension, often regarded as the first of the French Extremity cycle [though I’d argue that it was already underway], really is high tension all the way through. Director Alexandre Aja’s subsequent Hollywood career has so far never quite fulfilled the promise set by his debut movie, but he showed a truly masterful knack for astonishingly powerful suspense and fear here. The first time you see it, it’s terrifying, so terrifying that it almost feels like you’ve been taken into a different state, a state where you’re frozen solid but still alive, unbelievably frightened but also spellbound by what’s taking taking place onscreen, too spellbound to look away or even remind yourself that, as Wes Craven would say, “it’s only a movie”. And yet it’s such a simple setup, essentially reversing what are traditionally the long and short portions of the slasher movie so that the main bulk of the movie is the fight between the heroine and the killer, not the killing off of others. However, what should be a film beloved of horror fans everywhere does have an ingredient which many think ruin it. I’m talking about, of course, its ending, which, even though it’s just a variation on several others, really surprises until one thinks about it and things which don’t make sense begin to invade the brain. However, I soon came to believe that it does make sense if you take the movie as coming from a particular point of view. And when you watch the film again, one realises that said ending doesn’t come out of the blue at all really – there are lots of clues and hints which come before, and, while some ambiguities remain, ambiguities can sometimes be good, can’t they?
The original concept was for it all to take place entirely at Alex’s family’s house over the course of the night, but Aja and co-writer Levasseur decided that the story needed more locations, so they expanded it to take in a petrol station and a forest. SPOILER The screenplay had almost the entire movie from Marie’s version of events, with us not finding out that she was the killer until the end where and we see Marie in handcuffs. A policeman would roll in a TV and show Marie the video of her killing the gas station attendant and ask if she wanted to change her story. However, when Aja presented the script by him and Gregory Levasseur to Luc Besson, head of Europa Film which co-produced, he convinced them to change the ending to have the whole last reel showing Marie as the killer, instead of the last few minutes. SPOILER END. It was shot in chronological order in Romania, where four different locations were used for Alex’s parent’s house, while the only studio filming were the shots in the back of the killer’s truck. The fake blood splattering the camera lens was actually an accident, but Aja liked it so much so it was left in. The camera got so much of the stuff on it that when it was used on another film fake blood oozed out. Business was fairly good in France though the American ‘R’ rated cut, which lost nearly a minute of gory footage, did poor box office. There are a lot of similarities to the Dean Koontz novel Intensity, which was filmed as a two-part TV production in 1997. Aja admitted that he’d read the novel prior to making High Tension, but the reason as to why Koontz chose not to accuse Aja of plagiarism was because, as he posted on his website, he found the film “so puerile, so disgusting, and so intellectually bankrupt that [he] didn’t want the association with it that would inevitably come if he pursued an action against the filmmaker”.
“I won’t let anyone come between us any more” says a female voice repeatedly to shots of hands and feet nervously moving. “Is it recording”? are the next words before we cut to the next scene, and even this should have been enough to alert people that, somewhere along the line, things might change from being just hiding and slashing [which would still have been okay because this movie does hiding and slashing so incredibly well, especially the hiding] to something else, though of course it’s possible to forget this opening because you’re so riveted by what’s going on. Now we see, intercut with the titles, a wounded girl running in barefoot through a forest, seemingly fleeing from someone or something. Slow motion adds a dreamlike feel to the scene before she screams and waves at a car to stop – and then of course it’s revealed that this is a dream because the same girl is now seen waking up in the back of a different car during daylight being driven by her friend Alex, and asking for a cigarette. Alex asks her who was chasing her. Marie replies “nobody, it was me, like i was chasing myself”. They both have hangovers because they partied and Alex went off with some guy, which annoyed Marie, and seemingly not for the first time. Still, they’re off “to work, not getting drunk, remember?”, though the two singing along together at a song on the radio hardly suggests that intensive studying was ever really on the menu. Their destination is a farmhouse owned by Alex’s parents in the middle of gorgeous scenery, but almost idyllic moments of mother taking down the washing and Alex’s younger brother Tom playing with a toy gun lead us to expect something bad to happen soon Once Upon A Time In The West style – and then we see someone in a truck getting a blowjob from a severed head which he then throws out of the window. I’ve never been overly keen on this scene, it’s just goofy which doesn’t really go with the overall tone of the film, though there’s an interesting fan theory about this…..
Now it’s Alex who’s driving. She sees something, stops the car and goes into the cornfields, prompting Marie to follow, unaware that Alex was playing a trick on her. This isn’t just padding, it’s an important transitional moment in – well – I probably shouldn’t say! Marie eventually finds her and they both go to the house. Alex gives Marie a tour of her house before they settle down for dinner. Afterwards, Marie and Alex get ready to go to bed. As Alex sleeps, Marie lies on her bed listening to music and masturbating, possibly thinking of Alex, though it’s not clear. Aside from the fact that this is handled in a way that doesn’t seem to be done to arouse, it not seemingly intending to be exploitative, both the editing and the general feel of where the movie is now suggest that this act summons the killer. Just at the very best moment of Marie’s fun solo time, that evil-looking truck pulls up outside the house which seem to be a few miles from any proper roads. Marie hears a doorbell ring and Alex’s father Daniel wakes to answer it, and pays with his life, an event witnessed by Marie behind the stairs. In fact Marie will go on to witness a whole load of violence and experience a whole load of terror as this relentless killer will slay anybody he come across both inside the house and out when the action eventually opens out, except for Alex whom he just seems to want to kidnap for some reason. Truth be told, things do get a bit repetitive, but the first time at least we’re not really aware of this as Aja relentlessly pushes things forward. And then…..well, should I go into it?
Well I’ll say a bit, though will avoid explicit detail just in case you haven’t actually seen this film and were annoyed at having to skip over some of the third paragraph of this review, though of course you may work things out anyway. There are a fair few clues to what will eventually be revealed, such as a rifle hanging over a fireplace, though they’re easily missed because our attention isn’t exactly drawn to them. And then when it comes, yes, if you want logic then one can’t help but ask a fair few questions. Roger Ebert, as ever an excellent writer but generally not a fan of “strong” horror movies, wrote that “there’s a plot hole that is not only large enough to drive a truck through, but in fact does have a truck driven right through it”. Fair enough – the “explanation” has to make us believe that, in relation to the scene referred to by Ebert, somebody is able to split themselves in two, while certain other details are highly implausible, while the camera has lied repeatedly and rarely played fair as it did so [unlike another film with a similar twist from a few years before]. But then we’ve had an unreliable narrator anyway so he or she could be as unreliable as possible. I was quite chuffed that, after thinking this, Aja eventually confirmed it. However it’s easy to understand why many still have a problem with it, especially since Aja and are content to remain vague about some details, and would have preferred this stuff had not been included at all.
Aja got Giannetto De Rossi, makeup man on some of Lucio Fulci’s classics, to do the honours here, and he begins the killing spree with an absolute corker of a kill which must have had slash fans thinking they were in heaven. After we see a bloodied and dead dog being thrown onto the floor, the victim is cut in the face with a razor, and we don’t properly see the act, fooling and indeed disappointing us into thinking that we aren’t going to really see anything. But then we see the victim trying to crawl away upstairs and then the killer ensuring that his head is pressed between two spindles of the staircase, then a flipping bookcase being shoved towards his head, decapitating him. Yes, it’s rather unrealistic, but its sheer gall is hard to beat. With successive killings by more conventional means such as razor, axe and chainsaw in scenes that may be referencing other slashers or may not be [but surely we do see and do even hear what are throwbacks to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?], the detail is still pretty graphic though certain things also take place offscreen and perhaps the most queasy bits are some razor caressing and some forced finger fellatio, in a film which seems to have a theme that sexuality can be very dangerous even if it’s not intended to be. There’s also a truly hair-raising moment where the face of someone who’s supposedly hiding under a bed has their face caressed. No, this usually safe place ain’t safe at all. Despite all the blood on display, it’s still the – high tension that dominates, particularly a quiet walk down the stairs which Alfred Hitchcock would have struggled to do any better. As for humour, there are a few little tidbits to enjoy, such as the killer’s liking for a pair of sunglasses, but mostly it’s all serious, as it should be.
Cécile De France is very powerful as Marie while Philip Nahon is terrifying as the killer with his casual but relentless manner and, when we can properly see his face, freaky smile. He seems to be slightly channeling his role in I Stand Alone The camera of Maxime Alexandre seems to be steady and unobtrusive when we see the killer, and handheld and free [though never degenerating into vomit-cam] when it’s all about Marie, a nice touch. The ambient tracks of François-Eudes Chanfrault add their own odd effect, rarely actually attempting to increase the excitement, just creating a slightly sad mood, which is in is own way rather appropriate. The song “Newborn” by Muse, which begins with Philip Glass-esque piano before the same tune becomes full-on rock, adds a powerful sense of nihilism to a car and truck chase and the end titles. High Tension is indeed a nihiistic picture, a scream of rage against a society which perhaps represses and tries to hide away, as well as being among the best slashers ever. And even if you don’t like it much upon a first viewing, give it another go sometime later, because that second viewing will be so different it might be a whole new experience.
Dual format edition including both UHD and Blu-ray with main feature and bonus features on both discs
I watched the Blu-ray because I can’t support UHD. Even that is stunning to look at, truly showcasing the well thought through cinematography with its particular colour designs. With so much dark footage, one might expect a few lapses but no, it’s all fabulous with deep, rich blacks. Detail is vivid too, but never does the picture seem too glossy; we’re still watching a cheap slasher [if an extremely good one of course].
UHD presented in HDR10+ approved by director Alexandre Aja
New audio commentary by Dr Lindsay Hallam
I’m going to be honest; while there are of course exceptions, I’m generally not a fan of audio commentaries by people calling themselves academics; they tend to be dry and struggling to fill the running time, but Hallam’s track is continually interesting, as she goes through the film and shows us what a well constructed piece it is; seems like I missed more than half the clues and the hints. I even missed that Alex notices that Marie fancies her. Of course she also looks at the French Extremity Movement and says some interesting things about Aja, who doesn’t like Dario Argento because Aja “doesn’t like to notice the artifice and the art“, and that he watched The Shining on video by mistake [it was supposed to be Superman 2].‘ Also interesting is how there’s so much division on how the movie either stigmatises mental illness and homosexuality or supports them. Easy to digest and with almost no gaps, this track is an example of how to do the more scholarly sort of commentary right. Unfortunately the commentary with Aja and De France that was on the UK Optimum DVD isn’t here, as are two that were on the German DVD from Plaoin Pictures, but sometimes the rights to these things can be hard to obtain.
An Experiment in Suspense: a new interview with Alexandre Aja [35 mins]
Apparently he thought up the Switchblade Romance title and even prefers it! Aja recalls his first meeting with Levasseur where he was 11 years old reading a film magazine with Shocker on the front and Levassseur walked by and asked him if he’d seen it. He admits that they “spent years writing a load of shit” and made a list of all the movies they wanted to incorporate in some way.
The Man in the Shadows: a new interview with Writer Grégory Levasseur [19 mins]
Nice to have Levasseur, who’s collaborated with Aja several more times, begin by relating the same “first meeting” story as Aja. He also says how it was such a pleasure to shoot in Romania because the locals had nothing against horror movies, how great it was working with De Rossi [some great if brief behind the scenes footage of this], and how Maniac was a great influence and even referred to in some graffiti.
The Darker The Better: an interview with Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre [17 mins]
Alexandre says how he still uses High Tension as a reference, especially when trying to solve problems which is something that he especially enjoys about his job, that the light was incredibly low because of the budget, and expresses joy about shooting blood which he sees as hugely cinematic.
The Great French Massacre: an interview with Special Effects Artist Giannetto De Rossi [17 mins]
I was especially looking forward to this particular interview and it didn’t disappoint. The makeup legend seems open and honest as he says, regarding Aja and Levasseur, that “seeing those two kids so full of passion made me accept his offer“, the reason why the blood is dark in one scene is because he ran out of fake blood and had to make some really quickly, and that he applied a prosthetic wrongly but he and Alexandre managed to disguise it.
Only the Brave: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on High Tension [13 mins]
I feel that this could have been longer as Heller-Nicholas seems to have a lot to say about this film, in particular it’s handling of gender, and seems to uncomfortably speed through these 13 minutes. She says how the term “final girl” has been expanded and changed, and how High Tension blurs gender, pointing out certain things that are easy to miss such as the slight androgynous look of Marie.
Archive ‘Making of’ featurette [38 mins]
This and the next three featurettes were on the Region 2 DVD from Optimum Releasing, plus some others. Here, Aja and Levasseur, with Aja providing slightly more input, and accompanied by some great behind the scenes footage [ my favourite but must be De Rossi telling somebody to lift their head for their throat to be cut], take us through the making of process. We learn that De France and Malween had totally different attitudes on set [De France was into her role while Malween was sociable and friendly], that attempts to keep De France and Nahon apart ended up being pointless so they stopped, and that, when she accidently hit Nahon with her club, De France had trouble getting back into character and didn’t hit hard.
Archive Interview with Cécile De France [22 mins]
De France says that the twist made the script better, that she was inspired by Gina Rowlands and Sigourney Weaver, and that she found her character’s masturbation scene “quite funny” apart from having to do it repeatedly.
Archive Interview with Maïwenn [5 mins]
Luc Besson’s ex-fiancee says that she got the role when Aja, Lavesseur and his fiancee came to see her on stage, found her role easy except for when it involved normal chat hard, and mocked Aka [she recreates this with enthusiasm], only to be heard by him because there were microphones in his car!
Archive Interview with Philippe Nahon [5 mins]
“It’s so easy to do” says a constantly smiling and rather mischevious-looking Nahon who didn’t prepare for his tole whatsoever, though he did have trouble doing a throat-slitting because he struggled to find the right spot where bis razor was meant to go in. “I love my job and I believe in what I do” he says when asked what makes the perfect serial killer.
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
Rigid slipcase with new artwork by James Neal
70-page book with new essays by Anna Bogutskaya, Prince Jackson, Stacie Ponder and Zoë Rose Smith
Six collectors’ art cards
While a few special features included on other releases may not be included, Second Sight have still delivered a hugely impressive package here, which on balance might be the best version of this top grade slasher that’s also more than a bit more. Highly Recommended!