A return to the gutwrenching horror nihilism of the early 1980s, "Haute Tension" is a lot like "Maniac" and "Nightmare" in its mind-numbing, simple-minded gruesomeness. But unlike those feral gore fests, it's actually a damn fine movie too, as painfully supsenseful as Amenebar's "Thesis." They don't make 'em this intense in America, although French director Aja has cited Fulci and "Maniac" as major inspirations.
But this is way better than anything Fulci ever made. The title "High Tension" is a pretty apt description. The last three fourths of this film are basically like the last five minutes of "Halloween" -- total fear and total suspense. The first fourth simply sets the stage, with some false jumps and scares thrown in to remind us that some serious horror is on its way.
De France and Maïwenn Le Besco play two college students looking for a quiet place to study. They drive to the countryside home of Le Besco's parents, hoping to get away from it all. As they make their journey, we are introduced to the film's J&B-swilling heavy, Nahon, and (in a scene sure to prevent this film from landing anything less than a very hard R rating) we learn that he has no respect for women's rights.
As movie serial killers go, he is as unrelenting as a Jason, but much more terrifying because serial killers like him do exist. No explanation is given for his actions. At least not at first. Unlike American horror films, where the underlying psychological motivation for the killings is often a major plot point, in this film the killer simply is. He's just a big working-class guy who wants to kill women, or anyone who gets in his way.
For its first three quarters, "Haute Tension" is a truly tense fear film, in the tradition of the most gut-wrenching horrors of the 1980s. Its last scenes, however, remind us that it was crafted in an age when audiences want a lot more from their horror films. I won't obviously reveal the ending, but my own feeling is that it propels "Haute Tension" from "good" to "great," making this the coolest horror film in many years.
It hit theaters abroad in 2003, and was released to screens in America in 2005, a triumphant return of European horror to stateside screens.