Marie (Cécile De France) has just woken up from a strange dream where she was wandering alone through the woods in a pretty bad state. What she is actually doing is sitting in the back seat of the car her friend Alex (Maiwenn) is driving, and they are heading through the French countryside to see Alex's parents and her little brother at their remote farmhouse. Meanwhile, in the same area, a mystery figure (Philippe Nahon) sits in his battered truck doing something unspeakable to the severed head of a young woman, and as night falls Alex and Marie are unaware that when they reach the farmhouse, they will be setting themselves up for an encounter with the psychopath who is presently on the lookout for his next victims...
Obviously indebted to those culty, grimy Italian and American horrors of the seventies, films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Last House on the Left and the giallo of Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento, and arriving complete with all the clichés cheerfully intact, Haute Tension makes no secret of its derivative nature. Written by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur, it is a tribute to the less tasteful end of the exploitation movie scale, featuring plentiful scenes of gore and murder (some fans may recognise makeup effects expert Giannetto De Rossi's name in the credits) and an ending that will either have you giving up in despair or chuckling with delight that anyone could try to get away with it. As our resourceful heroine, De France is subjected to numerous indignities (although Maiwenn may have her beaten to the film's most thankless role) but triumphs again and again, if only by succeeding in the traditional manner of the survivors of shockers. Up to a point.
Once the family have retired to bed, the psychopath's truck advances. Before that we have been treated to building up the suspense sequences such as Marie being apparently abandoned in a cornfield by Alex, and Marie enjoying a last cigarette before bedtime while sitting on a swing out in the eerily silent darkness. Just as Aja is not afraid to be nasty, he's not afraid to take his time either. But as the truck arrives, curiously intercut with shots of Marie masturbating in bed, all hell breaks loose. The doorbell rings and the father ventures downstairs to investigate, only to be attacked for his pains, and by and by is decapitated by a cabinet in a ridiculous highlight (could you really push someone's head off with a cabinet?). The killer is an unsavoury middle aged man in a boiler suit and baseball cap who doesn't speak a line until over halfway through the film, not even a courteous, "goodbye" or two.
Marie is the only one aware that the intruder is in the building until Alex's mother finds out as well - the hard way. So begins a textbook cat and mouse chase around the farmhouse with Marie doing her best to avoid detection as the killer picks off the family, and ties up Alex (who has been sleeping with ear plugs in) for later. Events contrive to see the girls both locked in the back of the truck, but with the killer thinking there's only Alex in there. Or does he? It's effective how you're never quite sure. Well, you're not sure up to the point where there is a big revelation that plays around with the usual expectations of the "final girl" in slasher movies and puts the blame for the mayhem down to sexual tension, only not simply the frustrations of the burly killer this time. It is preposterous, of course, but presented with such vigour and style, and with such energetic excitement, that you may well forgive the cheats along the way. If you're feeling charitable. Moody music by Francois Eudes.
Aka: Switchblade Romance, which is the title of the excellent Optimum DVD release, featuring a commentary with Alexandre Aja and Cécile De France (who frequently seem on the verge of running out of things to say), cast interviews, a Giannetto De Rossi interview, a "making of" and trailers.