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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When it comes to extreme horror, America has nothing on France

Illustration for article titled When it comes to extreme horror, America has nothing on France

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Scarlett Johansson vehicle Lucy is the latest action-packed import from EuropaCorp. For the next five days, we highlight some of the French studio’s finest offerings—including a few without gunfights and car chases.


High Tension (2003)

High Tension belongs to that special subgenre of horror dubbed New French Extremity, a filmmaking movement that began in the late ’90s, taking its cues from artists like the Marquis De Sade, David Cronenberg, and other masters of the obscene. Cynics sniff that the New French Extremist movies are just an accent removed from something like Hostel, but critics enjoy dissecting how the movement’s transgressive participants put their Francophile spin on typical horror tropes. The rubric stretches to include harsh movies of all varieties: Catherine Breillat’s high-brow sex dramas could fit the bill—what with their tortured and torturous bodies—but so could something as brutishly simple as a French slasher flick like High Tension. What these films have in common is brutality. Whether it’s a great idea to subject oneself to such endurance tests is another question.

In High Tension, college students Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn) take a study break at the rural home of Alex’s family, an old farm in the middle of nowhere. There’s a certain dynamic between the two women that’s not difficult to read. Alex, who has long hair and conventional good looks, teases her lanky, short-haired companion about being single. “At least I’m not a slut like you,” Marie replies. Friends joke with each other about this stuff all the time, but something’s a little off here—a dark undercurrent of longing, jealousy, and anger.

Alex’s family is so charming and welcoming, their farm so quaint, that it’s clear something terrible is lurking out there in the dark, and that it’s coming inside. That something is a filthy, nameless creep (Philippe Nahon) that goes to work on the family in all sorts of horribly creative ways, and with a variety of implements. Alex and Marie are left alive, though it’s not certain for just how long or what they will have to endure in the meantime. The killer is shown in an earlier scene receiving oral sex from someone in his truck; when he’s done, he tosses a woman’s decapitated head out of the window and drives away. The body horror on display here isn’t about mutation, but an internal and external revulsion toward bodies, desire, and sexuality.

Director Alexandre Aja, who co-wrote the script with Grégory Levasseur, plays with the tropes of home invasion and the unreliable narrator in a way that’s initially quite promising. And High Tension offers some food for thought when it comes to gender, sexuality, and the idea of the Final Girl. It’s only when Aja starts putting together the puzzle pieces that the tension fizzles. The ending is so ludicrous that it’s insulting to viewers who were emotionally invested in Alex and Marie’s story, although the reveal does lend itself to at least one more viewing—if you can stomach it.

Availability: High Tension is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.