In Defense Of. When bad movies go good.
Rotten Tomatoes: 41% Fresh
From the moment American film realized that Rosebud was actually his sled, twist endings have been trying to one-up one another. It’s hard to put a finger on the last definitive good one. Was it The Usual Suspects? Fight Club? It doesn’t matter. Somewhere around the dawn of M. Night Shyamalan, the twist ending of the American blockbuster became both seemingly mandatory for filmmakers and exploitative towards the audience. This is an unfortunate situation for modern film, and I will absolutely concede that the miserable twist ending of 2003’s Haute Tension is one of the more offensive examples of this problem.
However, another unfortunate film situation is the current state of American horror movies. The catch-22 finds the truly graphic and frightening content executed amidst unrealistic premises and irritatingly bad acting. The scary movies boasting a more thoughtful direction and story lines (and bigger budgets) also come with a PG-13 rating (in hopes of reaching a wider audience). The problematic choice for horror fans is between taking a small solace in watching Paris Hilton graphically die in House of Wax or jumping when Kate Hudson is startled by a loud noise in The Skeleton Key.
Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, by virtue of its French director, escapes these problems. In exchange for some awful dubbing, we get semi-likable characters, the pretense of a non-ridiculous story and a truly terrifying villain. Finally, a horror movie that takes itself seriously.
The film finds its protagonist, Marie, traveling with her college friend Alex during their school break. They are staying with Alex’s family at their country home, and while the girls’ conversations aren’t captivating, they’re also not idiotic or unbelievable. Meanwhile, Haute Tension quickly establishes its gore level early on, cutting to a large, revolting truck driver engaging in a perverted act with a severed head.
Aside from some brief sexual chemistry between the girls and an inevitable shower shot (some horror movie tropes are international), Haute Tension gets straight to the meat and bones. Our truck driver shows up after everyone has gone to bed, rings the doorbell and starts brutally murdering Alex’s family.
Herein lies what I truly appreciate about a horror film: The tension in Haute Tension is legitimate. All it took was a little bit of acting, a little bit of mood, and a logical set-up. The “horror” part of the horror movie is quite simple: There’s no historic burial ground or unleashed flesh-eating virus. It’s just a crazy, disgusting man showing up at the door and decapitating people for unknown reasons. It’s something that could theoretically happen to anyone in our current reality, and it works just fine. There’s a palpable anxiety when Marie is hiding from the killer in her bedroom, and the gruesome deaths that befall Alex’s family members are downright brutal to watch. The amount of detail given about the killer is enough to illicit revulsion, but there’s still enough mystery to make him interesting and terrifying.
Then we get the twist. After a killing spree in a rural gas station, a surveillance video shows that Marie was the one murdering the station clerk. The horrifying killer is her. She has killed Alex’s family; she has taken herself hostage. There are places where you can give the film the benefit of the doubt: Marie’s witness of the murders is her dissociation, the monstrous villain (who, after all, arrived during Marie’s masturbation scene) represents guilt and shame at Marie’s apparent obsessive psychosexual urges… but most of it is a stretch, and things quickly fall apart at the car chase scene. Mostly you hate the movie for trying to be too clever, especially when it didn’t need to be.
That said, I feel compelled to forgive the movie that just spent the past hour legitimately scaring me. Haute Tension gets a pass on this one. While the twist left some plot holes, it also made use of the previous lesbian overtones. The film may not have needed the added drama of an obsessive lover, but I’ll take it over the American alternative. Perhaps my standards have become a little warped, but in this case, I’ll excuse the crappy twist for a decent horror film.