There is a certain sub-genre of horror out there that’s earned some notoriety since its inception in the early-’00s. It’s called the New French Extremity movement, and it typically refers to French-produced horror films with a certain level of violence and savagery. The kind of movie that slaps you in the face with its visceral nature, and leaves you telling all your friends about it for years to come. Fifteen years ago, on June 18, 2003 one of the subgenres most notorious entries was released: Alexandre Aja’s High Tension.
Officially titled Haute Tension in its native France, and released in the U.K. under the slightly cheekier title Switchblade Romance, the film’s brutal nature had people talking from the get-go. Even 7 years after the fact, TIME Magazine named it one of the ‘10 Most Ridiculously Violent Films’ in September of 2010.
[Please Note: This article discusses in detail the film’s notorious twist]
Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (Maïwenn) are your run-of-the-mill college students on a road trip to Alex’s family’s home in the French countryside. The reason for the trip, of course, is to buckle down and study their butts off for impending exams. They arrive late at night after the house has gone to sleep, save for Alex’s father whose stayed up to greet them (Dads, right?). Alex gives Marie a brief tour, and the two decide to turn in for the night. Marie puts her headphones on and decides to – ahem – release some tension (she masturbates), when a big surly dude in a beat-up truck pulls up to the house.
Already, this guy’s problematic with his incessant doorbell ringing at an ungodly hour of the night. Marie is in her room in the attic, wondering what in the fresh hell this bozo could want, while Alex’s poor dad answers the door. Surprise: his intentions are not good.
Long story short, some blood is shed and The Killer (Philippe Nahon) takes Alex with him on his merry way. Marie, having eluded him thanks to some quick and clever thinking, is now tasked with freeing Alex from his grubby clutches. (I mean literally grubby, as this fellow clearly washes his hands with dirt.)
Now let’s go over the film’s few kills. Becuase what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Spoilers obviously follow.
The first, as you may have guessed, is dear old dad. The old man gets cut in the face with a knife before getting his head pushed between the banisters on the stairs, and promptly lopped right off his body with the aid of a nearby bureau. And reader, when I tell you the blood that comes shooting out of his neck is plentiful, I mean plentiful. We’re talking Kill Bill Vol. 1 levels of blood. Alexandre Aja and special makeup effects artist Giannetto De Rossi apparently consulted with a coroner when deciding how much blood to shed, and therefore stand by their choices.
Next there’s the mom, who gets her throat cut right in front of the slatted closet door that Marie is hiding behind. In the unrated cut on the DVD release, the killer pulls her head back making the wound gape open for a second, before the delayed gush of blood kills any appetite you may have previously had. And if explicit gore wasn’t enough, the film has the balls to kill off Alex’s kid brother. It thankfully isn’t shown, but the gunshot is more than enough to make you queasy.
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After a forgettable axe to the torso of a gas station attendant, Marie tries to enlist some extra help. After a tense cat-and-mouse game between her and the killer in the woods, he briefly outsmarts her and pins her down, suffocating her. Not one to go down easily, Marie knocks him over the head, grabs a previously fashioned barbed wire-wrapped post and knocks the sh*t out of his ugly face. Over, and over, and over, and over again. It’s a scene harboring such carnal catharsis any horror hound would drool for, and culminates in a guttural scream from Marie, letting out everything she was keeping at bay in order to save the day…
Twist and Shout
And then comes the infamous twist. The one that either makes or breaks what has essentially been a pretty straight-forward film up until this point. And yes, even more Spoilers abound.
Earlier in the film, after the carnage at the house, Marie sneaks into the killer’s truck where Alex is. And because even killers gotta get gas at some point, he stops at a station. In one of the film’s best and most suspenseful scenes, we only hear the clicking of the pump as Marie sneaks out and slowly makes a break for the station door. She pleads for help from the attendant, before hiding in the store when the killer comes in to shop around a bit before taking an axe to the attendant.
Fast forward back to the end, and we see two officers pull up to the gas station. They go through the CCTV footage from the security cameras to see Marie...and no one else.
Turns out Marie is in deep, tragically unrequited love with Alex. To the point where she finally snapped, creating a psychotic identity to kill off anyone who might stand in the way of the two of them being together. “I won’t let anyone come between us anymore” is what she whispers to Alex over and over again at the end of the film, when they have their final confrontation.
Now, this brand of twist has been done plenty of times in the last 15 years since the film premiered in France, so the modern viewer would be forgiven for their fatigue toward it. But back then this was still a relatively novel idea. However, that didn’t stop people from crying ‘It makes no sense!’ or ‘It’s totally pointless and out of nowhere!’
BUT! If you pay close attention to the very beginning moments of the film, it shows a beat-up looking Marie in a hospital gown, hunched over and whispering to herself, “I won’t let anyone come between us anymore” over and over. The camera glides up her slashed back and we reach her hea. In the blurry background in front of her sit two men and a camera. Are they recording? she asks, and the film begins.
An epilogue masquerading as a prologue.
As such, everything we see up until the point where she finally “kills” the killer, is just her own story that she’s feeding to the police. The kills are included, and everything else is just how she’s made sense of it in her head to support the theory that there really was a different killer. Therefore rendering almost every “it doesn’t make sense” argument all but moot. Because whatever you saw that “doesn’t make sense” was just a story after all.
The only two sustaining arguments I have found are in regards to a particularly confusing severed head, and a car chase in which Marie and the killer are driving separate vehicles until one crashes in the woods. But that could just be lazy lying on her part. And piggybacking off of that argument, where did the truck even come from in the first place? But that’s a plot hole closed by the director’s commentary, where Aja states there was originally a brief moment where Marie catches a glimpse of the truck on the edge of the cornfield early on. Which would suggest she simply highjacked it.
And as far as the twist being out of nowhere, it’s actually alluded to in many ways throughout, sometimes quite poignantly. In fact, The Killer shows up when Marie is masturbating, thinking of Alex (presumably). And the scene in the gas station where she runs to hide in the bathroom, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hesitation before she chooses whether to go into the Men’s room or the Women’s. She chooses the Women’s, but then sneaks over to the Men’s. A metaphor perhaps?
One I didn’t even notice until this re-watch; after the killer leaves the bathroom, Marie bends down and rinses her face off. Anyone who’s seen a horror movie can tell you she’s probably going to stand back up and see him in the mirror behind her. And here the music does swell as expected, but gets perhaps a touch more foreboding when she stands up and only sees herself.
Who would’ve thought that a French Extremist horror flick with a superficially silly (and admittedly problematic) plot twist could house such weirdly nuanced metaphors of struggling with your own desires?
Where you surprised by High Tension‘s infamous plot twists? Are there any other subtle allusions to Marie‘s psychosis that you caught on a reent re-watch? Let us know in the comments below, on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!