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Haute tension (2003)

High Tension, Switchblade Romance

Directed by:

Alexandre Aja

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 85 minutes

US Certificate: NC-17 UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: France

If there is a kind of music that you dislike, it all sounds the same, whereas if you like it and give it your due attention, you can notice a whole spectrum of delightfully nuanced differences between each and every track. The same is true of the slasher film (or of any subgenre, for that matter). To some, all these films are reducible to a sadistic killer, hapless quarry and a fanbase of questionable, even morally suspicious, taste. Yet for slasher connoisseurs, it is the pursuit not just of victims, but of variation itself, which brings such thrilling pleasure – and there are always new, unexpected avenues down which familiar variations can be chased.

Take the French slasher 'Switchblade Romance'. Opening with a horrifically scarred Marie (Cécile de France) narrating what has happened onto tape, and allowing an early glimpse of the killer, a murderously psychotic hick rapist (Philippe 'Seul Contre Tous' Nahon), receiving head in his truck from a head that is severed, it is clear that 'Switchblade Romance' is going to conform to that favourite slasher sub-branch of the seventies, the 'survivor film' (think Tobe Hooper's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' or Wes Craven's 'The Hills Have Eyes'), where the emphasis is not on identifying the killer so much as on simply outrunning, outwitting and outliving him. When this madman mercilessly slaughters the entire family of Marie's friend Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), and throws Alex herself, bound and gagged, into the back of his pick-up, he draws the resourceful Marie into a bloody game of cat-and-mouse from which only one of them can emerge alive – except that, along the film's rural by-ways and backwoods, director and co-writer Alexandre Aja has laid a trap for the unwary viewer which takes 'Switchblade Romance' from survivalist shocker to a nightmare of an altogether different kind.

There is plenty for fans of the slasher film to relish here. Aja knows how to ratchet up the tension to a point where it becomes barely tolerable (the film's original French title means 'high tension'), and he does not hold back on the bone-crunching gore, making 'Switchblade Romance' a visceral assault on the senses – but it is the final surprise which not only makes this film different, but also strangely lets it down. The trick ending is telegraphed both verbally and visually from very early on for anyone who is even half-attentive – while even those who fail to see it coming will ultimately feel cheated by the (blood-) red herrings used to conceal it, which represent some of the most glaring breaches of the contract between filmmaker and filmgoer to be seen in recent cinema. And it need not have been that way, as any number of (non-slasher) films with similar, but better handled twists has shown – although to name them here would be to give too much away.

Still, Aja is clearly a talent to watch, and his scheduled remake of 'The Hills Have Eyes' is something which all slasher-seekers should await with tense anticipation.

It's Got: A relentless killer who is equally handy with knife, axe, rifle, plastic bag and buzzsaw; near unendurable tension; gore by the bucketload; an unnerving electronic soundtrack; and a mindbending twist that it is best not to think about too hard.

It Needs: Not to telegraph its twist so early in the film, and to find a narrative means to its twist ending that leaves the unwary viewer feeling less cheated.

DVD Extras Scene selection; choice of Dolby digital 5.1/2.0 stereo (both French language with English subtitles); full audio commentary (in English) by director/co-writer Alexandre Aja and star Cécile de France , who reveal that on-screen bastard Philippe (Seul Contre Tous) Nahon is a really sweet guy, that de France had to train in Thai boxing for two months to muscle up and thin down for the part, that the secret to creating tension is taking your time (and having an actress like de France), and that many more clues to the films solution ended up on the editing floor (thank goodness); interviews with Nahon (5min) who wishes he could do something lighter and funnier, with de France (22min) on the unpleasantness of shooting a long masturbation scene, and with Maïwenn (5min) on her attraction to a part requiring no intellect; an interview with famed Special Make-Up Effects Artist Gianetto de Rossi (7min), on his admiration for Ajas directorial passion and de Frances professionalism; Making of documentary (36min), essentially an extended interview with Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur on the production, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage; theatrical trailer (and English dub trailer); trailer reel of future Optimum releases. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Summary

A promising high-tension survival slasher, but the mismanaged final twist mutilates everything that has preceded.

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