About a year ago, buzz started building among horror fans about a French slasher movie titled Haute Tension about two girls who go to a country house and are terrorized by a maniac in workman’s coveralls. Dimension Films quickly signed 25-year-old director Alexandre Aja to remake Wes Craven’s 1977 mutant-cannibal-redneck flick The Hills Have Eyes, and Lions Gate sealed the deal to bring Tension to the States, retitled High Tension (presumably so no one would think it was about food).
But beware: High Tension is not quite the same film that you’ve heard raves about. First, there were a few trims made to avoid the NC-17 rating. More calamitous, however, was the decision to dub the film into English — but only partly. Lead character Marie, played by Cécile de France, is still French, but half of her dialogue is now in English (dubbed by de France herself) because she’s now — get this — staying with an American family that lives in France. So dialogue spoken by her friend Alexia (Maïwenn Le Besco, credited here only as Maïwenn) is now dubbed by an unnamed American actress, and her family gets the same treatment. Everyone else in the movie speaks in subtitled French, as does Marie when talking to anyone but Alexia.
The official Lions Gate line — affirmed by Aja in a statement that makes it sound like he had a gun to his head while making it — is that the dubbing was done to avoid distancing American audiences. But it has the opposite effect, taking you right out of the movie in its early, talky moments.
The bulk of the badly dubbed dialogue occurs during the first 20 minutes, as Alexia and Marie drive through cornfields en route to Alexia’s parents’ house. We’ve seen a flash-forward of Marie looking badly wounded and sitting in a hospital, so we know unpleasant things are afoot. Sure enough, in the middle of the night, an unshaven redneck type (Philippe Nahon) pulls up in a big, bad van, busts into the house and brutally offs the parents.
The rest of the movie is basically Marie and Alexia trying to get away from him. Much blood is spilled in the process. The gore effects, by veteran Lucio Fulci collaborator Giannetto De Rossi, are intense. Aside from a couple of postmodern touches, High Tension feels very much like a ’70s exploitation movie, with a villain whose deeds are so utterly repugnant that even pacifists in the audience will be rooting for him to get the beating of his life and a painful death. It looks like a ’70s movie, too, shot realistically rather than with all the silly color filters that marred recent studio updates like The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Unfortunately, the ending is so bad that it mars everything that comes before and makes second viewings of the film a rather empty experience. This isn’t one of those movies (like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense) ambiguous enough to play one way before you know the ending and another once you do. Aja just ignores logic and lies to you. It’s a frustrating capper to what is otherwise a thrilling, brutal ride.