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 get terrorized by a maniac in workman's coveralls. It had been well received in Europe, and horror geeks with Web sites here occasionally managed to procure an import DVD, generally reviewing the film with a unanimous thumbs-up. Twenty-five-year-old director Alexandre Aja was quickly signed by Dimension Films 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 the raves about. First, there were a few trims made to avoid the NC-17 rating. The studio claims these amounted to less than a minute; I saw the original a year ago at a festival, and seem to remember it having fewer cutaways from violent moments. (Then again, many who saw Psycho swear they saw Janet Leigh actually get stabbed.) At any rate, there are still many brutal moments left intact -- certainly more than in any recent big-studio horror movie.
More calamitous, however, was the decision to dub the film in English. And not just dub, but only partially dub. 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 her friend Alexia (Maïwenn Le Besco, credited here only as Maïwenn) is now dubbed by an unnamed American actress into English, 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 so as not to distance American audiences. But it has the opposite effect, taking you right out of the movie in its early, talky moments. Dubbing tends to work in live-action movies only when used for comedic effect, which it is decidedly not here. And if American audiences really hate subtitles so much, why assume they'll put up with them in High Tension's second half?
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The bulk of the badly dubbed dialogue occurs during the first 20 minutes, as Alexia and Marie drive their car 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. In a nod to the sex-equals-death messages of many '80s horror films, he appears to have been subconsciously summoned by Marie's masturbation.
The rest of the movie is basically Marie and Alexia trying to get away from him. Much blood is spilled in the process, and as has been revealed on the American poster, there are even some Extreme Championship Wrestling tactics involving a barbed-wire bat. The gore effects, done 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, presenting a villain who does many utterly repugnant deeds to the point 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. Aja wants it to feel real, not distance you with MTV tricks.
Unfortunately, he blows it at the end. No need to reveal it, but 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, where the director has cleverly filmed scenes ambiguously so as 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.
Still, horror fans are urged to seek out the import DVD (or wait for a Lions Gate version with unrated edit and fully French dialogue, assuming it plans one) rather than support the true horror that is partial dubbing. Don't send the message that this kind of thing is acceptable -- studios finally wised up that martial arts movies don't have to be dubbed, and they need to learn to respect horror in the same way.