High Tension - Second Sight Limited Edition 4K UHD/Blu-ray New Release Review
Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Cécile de France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun
Written by: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Produced by: Robert Benmussa, Alexandre Arcady, Luc Besson
Cinematography by: Maxime Alexandre
Original Score by: François Eudes Chanfrault
A weekend away becomes a living nightmare for two best friends when a deranged killer breaks into the home, slaughters family members, and takes one of the friends hostage.
It's been 20 years since Alexandre Aja's sophomore feature film shocked audiences worldwide and now Second Sight Films get ready to release the French extreme survival horror film on Limited Edition 4K UHD Blu-ray. Does it stand up after all these years?
'High Tension' really is one of the most divisive European films of the last few decades. It debuted at TIFF in 2003 and was distributed in North America by Lionsgate, which was initially dubbed in English. It received mainly negative reviews because of the horrid dubbing and of course the now infamous twist which didn't land well with most. This is the film that put Aja on the map and his direction is quite good. There is plenty of tension as the title suggests and had it remained an unrelenting, violent slasher throughout then I'm certain it would be thought more highly of. Sadly the decision to inject a rather unbelievable and also illogical twist really hurts the film overall.
Close friends Marie and Alexia drive off into the countryside to visit Alexia's parents at their isolated farmhouse. Marie (Cécile de France) is soft spoken and slightly tomboyish while Alex (Maïwenn) is a bit more flamboyant and traditionally girly. The explicit contrast between the two characters is highly calculated as explained by Aja and co-writer Grégory Levasseur and will play out interestingly as the story evolves. There's a playfulness between the two that perhaps suggests that their friendship isn't entirely platonic, although we will soon find out that the deeper feelings aren't reciprocated in full. While Marie is gay, Alex is not.
Soon after the duo arrive their nightmare begins as a savage killer trespasses on the farmland and brutally murders Alexia's entire family then takes her hostage. It's then up to Marie to try to save her friend and somehow come out on top in her inevitable encounter with the killer.
What the film does really well is in capturing a very realistic feel about the entire experience that Marie is going through. There's an intense, gritty feel to how the film is shot both through the visuals and atmosphere. It's a fitting tribute to some of Aja and Levasseur's favourite films growing up like 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre', 'The Hills Have Eyes' (which Aja remade in 2006) and 'Maniac' (which was remade by Frank Khalfoun, the actor who plays Jimmy at the gas station). The film contains many homages to the aforementioned classics and other films from the 70s and 80s, some more notable than others.
Cécile de France's performance is quite impressive considering she has very little dialogue and most of her portrayal is all about her physicality and ability to convey a wide emotional range with her facial expressions. She goes on quite the journey from that initially soft spoken girl to fierce protector. Maïwenn's journey is the exact opposite but just as monumental and her performance towards the very end is something special. Philippe Nahon is extraordinary as the imposing killer with zero humanity, although the performance does begin to drift worryingly into a caricature right at the end.
The film is full of super intense and vividly, brutal sequences that shows full blown decapitation and throat slitting without any discretion, all powered by the phenomenal work by Italian make-up and prosthetic legend Giannetto De Rossi, who rose to fame working with Lucio Fulci.
I first saw the film on DVD when it was released in the UK under the title 'Switchblade Romance', which Aja has admitted was his preferred title. In a brand new interview on the Special Features called 'An Experiment in Suspense', the director admits that a lot of the images and story was "lost" in the high contrast on the DVD version that was released and that this 4K remastered version of the original negative (the only HDR version approved by the director) is so much more fresher and close to the cinematic experience that he visioned all those years ago.
I can't attest to this statement (although I have no reason to second guess the actual director) but I will say that this version is absolutely gorgeous in that it highlights the contrasting colours really well without losing any of the visual exploitation shooting style of Maxime Alexandre.
It's certainly going to be a tough watch for non-seasoned horror fans made even more difficult by the incomprehensible twist that is revealed towards the finale of the film. Nahon's lumbering killer doesn't really exist and everything we have witnessed through the eyes of Marie and the other characters who have come in contact with him is a false reality. The entire film is null and void, a complete fantasy in Marie's head and the actual killer all along has been Marie herself. This revelation might be similar to David Fincher's 'Fight Club' in a way but the explanation or reasoning behind it isn't tackled anywhere near as successful as that film. Not only is the twist hard to believe but it's a bit problematic in that it vilifies the gay character because her love or lust simply isn't returned. Gay characters of course can be evil too just like straight characters, I'm not trying to argue that but I think what really hurts the revelation even more is that we just don't know enough about Marie to accept that she would behave like this. It really feels like the whole murderous rampage is triggered only by her horniness over seeing Alex naked in the shower, which prompts a masturbation scene. Then the shit hits the fan. The killer is a literal manifestation of her sexual repression, or in reality her sexual repression turns her into a monstrous killer.
Unrewarding and nonsensical ending aside, 'High Tension' is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking with a boisterous performance from it's lead that, although has it haters, may still yet be regarded as a seminal French classic for years to come.
This 4K UHD release boasts some really cool new interviews with Director Alexandra Aja, Writer Grégory Levasseur, DOP Maxime Alexandre and a new audio commentary from Dr. Lindsay Hallam, an academic author who specialises in horror cinema. It also features 'The Great French Massacre' a special exclusive interview with Giannetto De Rossi before he sadly passed away in 2021.
Check out all the Special Features below
Dual format edition including both UHD and Blu-ray with main feature and bonus features on both discs
UHD presented in HDR10+ approved by director Alexandre Aja
New audio commentary by Dr Lindsay Hallam
An Experiment in Suspense: a new interview with Alexandre Aja
The Man in the Shadows: a new interview with Writer Grégory Levasseur
The Darker The Better: an interview with Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre
The Great French Massacre: an interview with Special Effects Artist Giannetto De Rossi
Only the Brave: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on High Tension
Archive 'Making of' featurette
Archive Interview with Cécile De France
Archive Interview with Maïwenn
Archive Interview with Philippe Nahon
Limited Edition Contents
Rigid slipcase with new artwork by James Neal
70-page book with new essays by Anna Bogutskaya, Prince Jackson, Stacie Ponder and Zoë Rose Smith
Six collectors' art cards
'High Tension' Limited Edition 4K UHD Blu-ray is released by Second Sight on January 22nd. Pre-Order HERE