Switchblade Romance (Haute Tension) (2003)

Hearts will bleed.
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Haute Tension - High Tension - Switchblade Romance - Hearts will bleed

Confession time. This film is, and has been for a while, a favourite of mine. With that in mind, I've tried to write this as if I was seeing it for the first time when it comes to the plot i.e. no spoilers or repeat viewing perception. Let's see how this works out...

Haute Tension (or High Tension, or, ridiculously, Switchblade Romance - yuk) was in a way a product of the French government. "What?" you may say. "Is he talking bollocks?" you may say. Well, no.

Due to an enthusiastic and opinionated film watching (and, importantly, film buying) fanbase, horror films can be a quite profitable genre for a relatively small outlay. Around 10 years ago, the French government, no doubt looking to make a quick buck (ok, euro) decided to hand out grants to film makers to make horror films. Money out, money in - everyone's a winner. This led to a surge in French horror, much of it quite visceral - we do like our gore.

One of the frontrunners in this boom period was Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension, a film that took many viewers by (welcome) surprise when it showed up on the shelves. From the start, the film looks to disorient and entice the viewer in equal measures, opening with a battered and bruised young woman in a white room, having obviously been through some ordeal - and, importantly, having come out the other side alive.

What? Final girl revealed in the first minute? Well, maybe...

Soon we cut to two friends, Marie and Alex, driving to the isolated farmhouse of Alex's family for a relaxing break. They talk, they laugh, they swear - all very natural and scene setting. Soon they have arrived, and settle in for their first night. As Marie sits smoking outside before bed, she looks up to see Alex showering through a window. Maybe looks for a little longer than normal, but she is French after all...

Not long after (Marie having had a quick one off the wrist in the meantime) the silence of the night is broken by a battered old truck approaching the house. We have seen this truck in a brief earlier scene, but I won't spoil the fun or shock value of that moment by elaborating.

Before anyone has a chance to cry "sacre bleu!", the driver of the truck decides that Alex's parents have had a good innings on this earth, and should maybe bow out gracefully. Ok, gracefully may be the wrong term. It's bloody. Very, very, bloody. The sanguine theme continues as the killer (always shot in the glare of lights or close up on body parts, never full face at this stage) makes his way through the house, determined to be the last man, woman, child, or lovely old family pet standing.

After a nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse, Marie manages to escape as the killer leaves with Alex, alive but with no need to remember her family's birthdays anymore. As he drives away with Alex in the back, Marie manages to sneak in as well. No-one steals her friend without a fight.

The tension of the title comes to the fore in a scene at a gas station which really does put you on the edge of your seat, as well as splashing more of the red stuff around of course. Soon a car chase ensues, leading us and the characters towards what will inevitably be a typical, if slightly bloodier than usual, (wo)mano a mano stand off. Right? Well, if you've seen the film you'll know that's not quite right. If you haven't, go watch now and decide for yourself! Suffice to say, the last 10 minutes of this film will likely colour your impression of it one way or the other.

Haute Tension is a brutal, bloody (at times quite spectacularly so) experience that you are unlikely to forget. Aja and his trusty production designer Gregory Lavasseur use sound and light to disorient the audience from start to finish, with a subtly intrusive soundtrack of noises that regularly suggest something isn't quite right with what we are seeing.

The performances are well played out, and the killer is a menacing, mostly silent brute who you really wouldn't want to meet down a dark alley. Or a relatively brightly lit gas station. Both lead actresses are believable and able to play both strong emotion and more naturalistic moments well, adding to the tension in the scenes of danger and distress.

There's a lot more I could say about this film, but it would all break the "no spoiler" promise. A review of this film from a repeat viewing perspective would be a different animal, trust me. If you like this one, maybe I'll return sometime and give you one from that position.

Yep, I ended on smut.
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