In 1931, Variety magazine wrote of Universal Studios’ “Dracula,” “The living-dead Count Dracula who sustains life by drinking the blood of his victims, seems almost plausible.” This was written about a soon-to-be-famous Hungarian actor with hypnotic eyes and a cape. “Dracula” was hugely successful at the box office, but the film was not considered great art in its time, and Bela Lugosi was by no means regarded as a great actor. Sixty years later horror became respectable.
A graphic, R-rated 1991 film about a killer that skins his victims to make a suit from their flesh defined great art, sweeping all five major categories at the Oscars, including Best Picture. Esteemed British actor Anthony Hopkins received the praise of critics everywhere and a Best Actor trophy for “The Silence of the Lambs,” despite having little over 16 minutes of screen time.
Much has changed in accepted dosages of gore since “Dracula” first proved that audiences want to be scared and entertained. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, utilized a less-is-more approach throughout his career, letting our minds fill in the blanks. The famous shower scene in “Psycho,” for instance, never shows the blade coming in contact with Janet Leigh’s skin. But toward the end of Hitchcock’s accomplished reign and before Hannibal Lecter’s mainstream success, horror movies got very low budget and really sick.
George Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead,” Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” and especially Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” were grisly American masterpieces that took gore from the drive-in theater to wider audiences. They ditched the more campy vibe in favor of a gritty psychological terror, spawning both the zombie and slasher horror genres that still survive today.
Fast forward to 2005. Horror movies are still raking in the cash, and the newest trend among Hollywood’s successful fright films are re-makes. Slick versions of “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Grudge,” and “House of Wax” are recent successes, and no less a Hollywood magnate than Michael Bay has scored big, producing re-makes of both “The Amityville Horror” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
So leave it to the French to make this suddenly respectable genre disgusting again. Writer/director Alexandre Aja and co-writer Gregory Levasseur have brought back the grisly terror of those classic 70s flicks with “High Tension.” Don’t get any ideas about this being an “intellectual” horror film just because it’s French. It’s not a re-make, but rather (and perhaps more appropriately), an homage to their American influences. Boasting the same low-budget feel and deceptively simple premise as the “Chainsaw Massacre” or John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” the movie follows a killer with a blade who cuts a bloody path through a secluded French farmhouse.
“High Tension” is full of visceral thrills and shocking gore, to say the least. The first scene with the unknown killer sets the tone to revulsion immediately. We first see the redneck stranger in a delivery truck, stalking the backwoods country like Leatherface, clad in coveralls like Michael Myers. He’s behind the wheel, receiving pleasure from somebody, we assume. When he is finished, however, he throws a girl’s severed head out the window.
“High Tension” lives up to its title for the first two-thirds of the film as tomboyish college student Marie stays just one step ahead of the killer. Like its influences, the urgency comes from the movie’s total lack of visual sophistication. The most terrifying scenes have a simple conceit– put the audience in Marie’s place. What would you do if you were trying to escape a house and avoid detection while your friend’s family is being brutally slaughtered by a knife-wielding madman? When Marie and the murderer take their act on the road, though, the pace drags and plausibility is stretched way too thin.
“High Tension” gleefully recalls the unadorned terror of those groundbreaking 70s horror films, but then veers off sharply into post-“Silence of the Lambs” territory at the end. In a remarkable turnaround, the film suddenly lacks the courage to stick with what it does best. Some insignificant clues are laced throughout the film, supposedly adding up to another “twist” ending that sells out its premise, making it just another serial killer film. What we’re left with is a disreputable movie that fails to live up to either horror genre.