“Haute Tension” won Best Actress (Cecile De France), Best Director (Alexandre Aja), Best Make-Up (Giannetto De Rossi) and the Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver at the 2003 Catalonian International Film Festival, Spain.
Screened at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, this vicious, sadistic splatter film was lauded for its outrageous gore and unrelenting, primal terror, but also criticized for a twist ending that pretty much torpedoes whatever murky logic propels the drama in the first place.
Aja's screenplay also echoes Dean Koontz' novel, "Intensity," which was made into a TV movie by director Yves Simoneau. Divided into two parts, the first half of the 1997 production always stood out as a horrifying exploration of a woman's terror, trying to escape from the clutches of a serial killer after he too has massacred the family of her best friend. Once the heroine stops a car passing through a bisected forest, the tension in Koontz' story crumbles, and a ridiculous plot shift involving a captive girl becomes the new focus. It's as if Aja recognized the first half of Koontz' story could work as an emotionally claustrophobic thriller, but the perfection of that opening meant too distant scene variations would ruin a good thing. The solution: that clumsy twist finale.
Did Aja rip-off Koontz' "Intensity"? The scene-by-scene similarities are very disturbing, yet Aja's skill in maintaining such a nightmarish tone can't be dismissed. The widescreen photography - largely comprised of high contrast yellows, browns, and blues - is first rate, and looks beautiful in this widescreen, albeit non-anamorphic, transfer. This Hong Kong Region 3 NTSC release also includes the original French dialogue track with optional English subtitles - a combination not present on all releases - and English subtitles for both actress interviews. (Other single and 2-disc editions contain different combinations of cast interviews, make-up and making-of featurettes, and an English commentary track with director Aja and co-star Cecil De France.)
Both interviews in Panorama's DVD are straight medium shots of the actresses responding to queries on reading the original script, their respective characters, working with director Aja, the grueling shoot, and funny moments during filming. Cecil De France's comments, intercut with a few lengthy film extracts, are the most interesting, largely due to her more intelligent and instinctive character observations; and the overall ridiculousness of shooting a thriller movie, with creepy sets and "pizza" styled gore. Maiwenn (best known as the Diva in Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element") is less verbose in her interview segment, and the English subtitles are a bit clumsy in spots.
In "Haute Tension," Aja's direction recalls Tobe Hooper's best work; that is, those unending sequences of brutality which combine visual montage, shocking gore, and harsh sonorities to evoke a surreal, merciless docu-drama tone. Aja's prior film (and feature debut), "Furia," is also available on DVD.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan