Director: Alexandre Aja
This was Alexandre Aja’s first stab at the slasher genre. He didn’t just stab it… he stuck a knife in it and watched it die. Now it’s up to you to somehow translate that as a compliment. Haute Tension isn’t without cliches like how even good progressive rock music isn’t without exhaustive solos. It’s more about how bands such as Porcupine Tree do it. Sure, Fairport Convention does it too, but there’s a difference – they aren’t very original.
Slasher films too, from all over the world, have tried and tested the formula that Haute Tension follows, but it hasn’t always worked.
There are a few reasons why it works here despite the generic stalker-psychosexual plot. The cinematography is washed in sepia-toned midnight colours and its background score is drenched in terse reverberation, leading to more intensity per frame than our frail minds could digest on a weekday. The pacing of film is such that we only get time to take a few deep breaths before a wayward punch to the gut knocks the wind out of us.
Haute Tension works like a charm because Philip Nahon – who plays a psychopathic trucker – is Philip Nahon. He’s a force of nature in every film he acts, and he takes things more seriously than he probably should. He must have freaked the crew out by sitting all by himself in the editing studio, licking the edge of a bloodied axe and grimacing at them, during post-production. His introduction in Haute Tension is brutal to the point that it will have you uncomfortably twisting your toes. His stomp to the head of the first victim by the staircase makes the curb stomp in American History X look like sensual foreplay.
Actresses Maïwenn and Cécile are respectable as hapless victims. You will care about them and not just because you realize they could be lesbians about 2 minutes into the film. If that’s the only reason, you are somehow a disgusting sexist and you will find neither love nor cats who may foster a mild liking for your personal hygiene.
The innocuously tender twist at the end nearly looks apologetic, considering Dario Argento has been scripting such false endings for forty years. In fact if you were expecting something else, you simply haven’t watched enough slasher films.