Sunday, May 16, 2010

[Review] High Tension

High Tension presents its audience with a story that it's almost certainly seen before: Two young women head out into the countryside, where they are menaced by a brutish cipher in the form of a lumbering, nearly faceless killer. They're forced to watch as people around them are slaughtered for no apparent reason. Some cat-and-mouse games take place, as these killers can inevitably detect the Protagonist Glow that the leads emit and decide to toy with those characters rather than killing them with the same efficiency that they've heretofore displayed. The leads suffer through various forms of abuse before enduring a final confrontation with the killer, after which there's a brief cool-down period before a final jump scare.

High Tension is a mostly standard slasher film with a Big Twist. I won't reveal what the details of that twist are, but I had somewhere stumbled across knowledge of it before I watched the movie. Knowing what I did gave some of the scenes a slightly more interesting, multilayered resonance than the by-the-numbers rote that makes up the rest of the narrative. Good twists make you want to immediately go back and watch a movie again, so you can pick up on the double meanings and hints that you missed the first time through, but the reveal here wasn't enough to make the film worth watching a second time. Mostly, the twist comes across as the filmmakers' attempt to add some cleverness to a subgenre that's known for a complete lack of same, rather than either an organic consequence of earlier events of the film or as an original reason to write the narrative in the first place.

The twist is also used as a commentary on the tropes of the slasher film, and as an attempt to add some internal consistency to the notoriously shaky mythology of how the narratives in that subgenre normally play out. Unfortunately, the twist opens up as many plot holes as it seals. The twist also endeavors to try to explain why the killer gets up to his crazy shenanigans in the first place, but instead adds a layer of nastiness that I think was wholly unintended on the part of the filmmakers. It doesn't jibe at all with the grime-and-gore aesthetic of the rest of the movie, and instead seems to be striking a wholly random blow against a subject that the rest of the movie only hints at.

I wouldn't have thought that a movie could be both unpleasantly nasty and boring at the same time, but High Tension manages to pull that off. I didn't care about what was happening on screen, excepting a morbid curiosity regarding how the plot would contrive to throw more bodies into the way of the walking meatgrinder that is the antagonist. Simultaneously, the tone of the film is so uniformly misanthropic that there was no fun to be had from the kinds of goofy/squirmy exploits of the American slasher icons that I'm more familiar with.

Transgression was obviously the highest item on the priority checklist of the makers of this movie, but rather than using transgressive imagery to challenge the audience in any way, it was crafted purely for its own sake. The closest similar film I can think of that I've seen was The Devil's Rejects, which also made me feel like someone spent its length puking into my brain. The difference between the two, though, is that though both present entirely loathsome characters and force the audience to draw some unsettling conclusions about the nature of a world without any kind of morality, personal or otherwise, Rejects also deals with themes that couldn't have been confronted without the use of the transgressive shocks that it employs. Though it's both crueler and more porny in its presentation of those shocks, it also has a terrific thematic payoff that Tension entirely lacks.

Tension is, in some ways, a very beautiful film. The cinematography uses a subtle, well-considered progression from medium shots to shots which are framed increasingly tightly. This does an excellent job of mirroring the psyches of the characters, who are themselves being backed into progressively smaller corners, both physically and emotionally. This is an old technique from the noir films of sixty years ago, but it's one that I'm always surprised isn't employed more often in horror films, which are a natural home for it. There's also a gorgeous filter-dissolve sequence in which the camera follows a woman running through a forest, unlike any other use of dynamic filtering that I've ever seen elsewhere.

The score does a fantastic job of evoking a sense of mechanical, inhumane dread, mostly through the use of nearly inaudible drones which resemble the sound of industrial machinery more than any musical cues. The sound design is especially striking; the noise of the killer's galoshes as he plods about, carving personal abattoirs out of every environment he enters, was easily the most unsettling element of the film.

Technically, there's a lot to recommend here. It's too bad that the filmmakers weren't able to translate those technical accomplishments into anything more noteworthy. The most depressing aspect of Tension is that it turns out to be nothing more than a slasher with some pretensions to art, and those aren't nearly as meaningful as they're trying to be.


  1. It sounds less interesting on multiple levels than Old Boy, especially the twist?

  2. Hmm. That raises a good question: Is the final reveal of Oldboy a twist? I think of a twist as a revelation that what the audience has seen so far isn't true on some level, but the climax of Oldboy reveals character motivations rather than lies or misdirections on the part of the camera itself. The twist of High Tension isn't quite "it was all a dream," but it's not far off from that level of eyerollage.

    But, to answer your question, High Tension was certainly the inferior film compared to Oldboy. Oldboy sets out to use the tropes of the revenge genre to examine the human condition; High Tension sets its aim no higher than being a slasher film with relatively high production values.

    Oldboy's final revelation forces the audience to re-examine what they thought they knew about what they'd been watching, prompting questions of character sympathy and the righteousness of revenge (a theme that iterates itself variously throughout Park's trilogy). Conversely, High Tension's exists merely to feel smugly impressed with itself, as it doesn't use its twist for anything more than a cheap shock. Like the copious squick that permeates the rest of the movie, it's there purely for its own sake. That's kind of a shame, as the basic idea behind it isn't a terrible one, but there's no follow-through for it.