The PG-13 rating has long been a thorn in the sides of horror fans. In an effort to reach the widest audience possible, studios routinely tone down some of the more...well, horrific aspects of the genre, a compromise that often winds up satisfying no one. Nowadays, even horror movies that are released with an R rating, such as the recent Amityville Horror remake, often lack the gruesome thrills that make these films a blast to watch. So it's always refreshing to see a movie like High Tension, which takes full advantage of its restricted rating. Among the acts of violence you'll see committed in Alexandre Aja's back-to-basics slasher movie are stabbings, beheadings, and a circular saw to the sternum. Of course, Aja understands that gore alone doesn't make a good horror movie. What really gets the audience involved are the tense moments before the blood starts to fly. And, as the title implies, High Tension is filled with those sorts of beats. In its best moments, the film is reminiscent of such seminal slasher pictures as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (which Aja is currently remaking for Dimension Films).
As in those movies, the set-up here is wonderfully simple. College pals Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (Maïwenn) decide to visit Alex's family at their remote farmhouse in order to get some studying done. The same night they arrive, a psychotic redneck breaks into the house and proceeds to slaughter Alex's parents and little brother. Marie miraculously manages to escape his attention, but her friend isn't so lucky. The killer binds her in chains and then tosses her in the back of his truck. Before he can drive off, Marie scrambles into the truck with Alex and desperately searches for some way for them to escape. Their chance comes when the killer pulls over at an all-night gas station staffed by a lone attendant. Unfortunately, Alex's abductor gets to the poor guy first, leaving Marie to face him all alone.
Up until this point, High Tension is tense and scary in all the right ways. The extended sequence in Alex's house is especially good-it's no surprise that Hollywood came knocking on Aja's door. The director also thankfully lays off the speeded-up camerawork and quick cutting that mar so many contemporary horror films, instead relying on longer takes and an overall slower pace. But then he goes and spoils it all by tossing in a ridiculous plot twist that more or less negates everything that came before. Not only is this twist nonsensical, it's also completely unnecessary. Instead of leaving viewers on the edge of their seats, it simply leaves them baffled and ticked off.
Aside from the terrible ending, the other reason High Tension never really goes from good to great is its lack of an underlying metaphor. The best horror movies attempt to prey on the audience's real fears-think of the social politics at play in George Romero's zombie series or the dread of the subconscious that runs underneath the Nightmare on Elm Street movies (or the first one, anyway). At times, Aja seems to be trying to make a statement about sexuality (it's not-so-subtly implied that Marie's feelings for Alex run beyond friendship), but this theme feels like a tacked-on afterthought. Ultimately, the movie's real message seems to be: Don't invite your daughter's friends over for a study session.