French Horror Pastiche Up to More Than Mimicry

The international shortage of horror movie plots surfaces in France with Alexandre Aja's High Tension, a pastiche of '70s American slasher flicks that seemingly stands to add to the worldwide glut of irono-nostalgic sequels, remakes, and retreads. Happily, though, High Tension is a gratifyingly gory, doggedly intellectual decon of the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and (surprisingly but aptly) Duel that manages—before faltering under the weight of its own pretensions—to be pretty scary.

The broad strokes are familiar enough: Attractive, sassy college student Marie (Cécile de France) accompanies gal pal Alex (Maïwenn) for a weekend of studying at the latter's remote family farmhouse. Shortly after settling in, they're besieged by a grunting, giggling homicidal automaton (Philippe Nahon) who summarily snuffs Alex's relations as Marie cannily evades his notice. Her watchful inaction in these early scenes indicates that High Tension is up to something more than mere mimicry; placing the Carol Clover-ian "final girl" in the voyeur role instead of the killer is a telling instance of genre-bending. Such details become even more crucial when Marie pursues the brute after he abducts Alex and ultimately confronts him with one of the more uproariously lethal of the film's abundant phallic symbols.

The truth of the situation is exposed shortly afterward in a twist that lets the air out of the movie, but the revelation is both inevitable and exceedingly clever—if also backhandedly puritanical. Such deficits are easy to overlook thanks to High Tension's knowing performances and unnerving combination of ambient sound, fluidly jittery cutting, and sly widescreen setups. It's enough to give horror fans reason to anticipate Aja's next project—a (sigh) remake of The Hills Have Eyes.

 
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