Haute Tension (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

You may tend to think that France produces arty, meandering, generally philosophical films while the USA specializes in cheap thrills. While there is some truth to that, the fact of the matter is that the French more or less invented cheap bloody thrills as a form of entertainment. In 1897, a French playwright opened his own theater to produce the sorts of entertainments with were anathema in the cultured world of the legitimate theater.  Many different types of entertainments were produced there, but Le Theatre du Grand Guignol became most famous for one particular type of play which captured the imagination of its audiences: splatter theater. The company become particularly adept at presenting macabre terror plays which simulated violent death and torture so effectively that the simulated beheadings, dismemberings, acid-splatterings, and other blood-soaked effects seemed real to the audiences. Over the years, the Grand Guignol theatre became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris, and eventually its name became synonymous with an entire grisly genre of horror performances featuring extreme gore delivered with realistic special effects. Although the theater opened its doors before cinema was a popular entertainment medium, the Grand Guignol theater company was, in effect, the group responsible for the invention of splatter films. They paved the way for Hershell Gordon Lewis, Rob Zombie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the other fodder for film's latter day gore hounds.

Haute Tension is a French film in the true Grand Guignol tradition. No compromises. It's vicious, visceral, and in-your-face.

What's it about? Not much. A young female visits her family's isolated countryside estate, accompanied by a friend from school. While they are there, a murderous maniac stalks the estate.

What's it like? Imagine a stylized and professionally executed horror film like A Nightmare on Elm Street, but higher on the gore meter, lower on the irony - more like Blood Feast or Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its straightforward depiction of the violence. You might say it is a bloodier French version of Jeepers Creepers, or maybe the kind of film The House of 100 Corpses would have been if Rob Zombie were French.

Is it good? That's a complicated question. Let me change it to "Will people like it? If so, who?" The critical response to this film has clearly established an answer to that question. If you are like 95% of the people who watch films, splatter films are not for you, so the question of quality is irrelevant. You won't like a brutish, mean-spirited, explicit splatter film even if it has the production values of Amelie, the myth-making genius of The Godfather, and the cinematic poetry of Blade Runner. Roger Ebert wrote, "The philosopher Thomas Hobbes tells us life can be poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is this movie." He hated it and gave it one star. I feel about the same way. If I didn't have to watch films like this for other work-related reasons, I would never watch one on my own for pleasure.

But that doesn't mean it sucks.

If you are among the other 5% who really enjoy an extremely explicit gore-fest, and would like to see an effectively vicious homicidal maniac on a rampage, this should be your kind of movie. It has a distinctive look and visual style, an unsettling and effective musical score, and dramatic tension throughout. And there are not many films that will show you a maniac beheading a woman, then using her severed head to masturbate furiously. It gives new meaning to the phrase "getting some head."

Two additional notes:

1. While the film probably is a splatter classic in the original French, the dubbing is preposterously sloppy. The actors are poor, the synch is non-existent, and they didn't even bother to translate some parts. Some of the scenes and some scattered dialogue are still in French. The parts that they did translate are filled with non-sequitur concepts. One of the classmates speaks English with a French accent, while the other speaks with an American accent. It is no wonder that this film bombed so poorly in its theatrical release. Audiences (including critics) must have been completely flabbergasted by the half-hearted and unprofessional dubbing effort.

2. Even genre die-hards found fault with the ending. The film exhausts most of its running time by leading the audience to make certain assumptions about the nature of the killer. Then it switches gears completely and layers in one of those trick endings like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge or Shyamalan's films. Frankly, I usually don't mind much when films do that, but that sort of device has to be carefully planned in advance. Take Jacob's Ladder for example. Adrian Lyne knew the trick ending before he started to imagine the visuals, so he created every element of the film consistent with the final twist, so that after you know the twist, you think "so that's why that so-and-so didn't seem to make sense. Now I get it." Even if the cheap trick pisses you off, you still appreciate the genius of it. If the film is especially brilliant, you can watch it a second time and marvel at how well the trick ending is foreshadowed, even though the director was using a magician's patter and other misdirection to keep you from seeing his sleight-of-hand. Haute Tension is not like that. It seems as if the film had already been completed when the director/screenwriter didn't want the film to end in a conventional way, so he tacked on a plot twist in the manner of "Fight Club", and you will really have to stretch yourself to explain how various scenes could have happened, given the secret.



  • Original French version or (poorly) dubbed version
  • English or Spanish subtitles
  • full-length audio commentary
  • two "making of" featurettes



Maiwinn LeBesco shows her breasts in a shower scene (in which she is obviously wearing panties!)

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: no consensus. James Berardinelli thought it worked: 3/4, Roger Ebert hated it: 1/4.

  • British consensus out of four stars: two stars. Three pans, but BBC liked it. Telegraph 3/10, Guardian 2/5, Times 4/10, BBC 4/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was a nuclear bomb in its domestic release. Lion's Gate got it on 1300 screens in the peak summer movie season, where it proceeded to open with a weak $1.8 million weekend - and then go downhill. It dropped more than 65% in its second weekend.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it should be a C+, a genre classic, and it would be if you saw it in French. The ridiculous dubbed version is a C-, meaning only hard-core splatterhounds will watch it. Note that this film is not for most moviegoers, and is absolutely not suitable for impressionable youngsters.

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