Before reimagining “The Hills Have Eyes,” filmmaker Alexandre Aja made his mark three years before with the French film “Haute Tension” (High Tension). The aptly named crime-horror tells the story of Marie, a coed, who pursues a sadistic killer preying on her friend Alex’s family in their new farmhouse. The rural setting effectively creates the atmosphere of helplessness that comes with isolation, leaving the viewer uncertain that an end to the madness will ever come. Alex, played by Cécile De France, proves a formidable heroine whose mix of strength and frailty elicits the kind of sympathy reserved only for edge-of-your-seat thrillers like this one.
Unfortunately, Aja’s attempt at innovation in the climax of the film nullifies all the groundwork that makes “Haute Tension” masterful in its simplicity. What starts out as a victim-turned-vigilante tale gets reduced to a psychological thriller devoid of an earned reason to support such a turn. While there is nothing wrong with filmic misdirection, employing such a device demands that the director honor the audience’s intelligence. Aja completely undermines the bulk of the movie for a plot twist that would be interesting if he had only made a different bulk of the movie. The egregious lack of consideration for unity of action appears almost deliberate, but to a questionable aim.
Consistent with Aja’s work on Hills, he does exhibit an uncanny knack for creating startling moments in a world where most horror movie fans have been desensitized by knowing every trick in the book. In “Haute Tension,” Aja proves that old devices still have great fright value. In this case, however, the pressure to create something new and different detracts from Aja’s strengths as a filmmaker. Although the movie ultimately defies logic, its shortcomings are a close second to the chain of violently suspenseful moments that will make you think twice about walking around your house in the dark. The best way for a viewer to reconcile the movie as a whole is to pretend that the final ten minutes are an alternate ending that looks cool but clearly made little sense given the original plot. Overall, “High Tension” delivers on the title in more ways than one, and audiences could do a lot worse for themselves given the state of high-profile horror movies today.