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Photograph by Toni Salabasey

Inconvenience Store: Marie (Cécile De France) takes refuge behind the bottled water in Alexandre Aja's horror homage, 'High Tension.'

Kill Me, Killer

French hybrid slasher 'High Tension' takes a long, talky low road to bloody payoff

By Richard von Busack

EVERY ONE knows the clichés of the slasher genre—the lonely house, the pitiless monster, the surviving virgin—but a lesser-publicized routine is honored by director Alexandre Aja. He has made the first 20 minutes of High Tension so bland, so tedious that wrathful boredom sets in, and you're quite ready to see someone get it in the neck. High Tension begins with a long drive and a twitty conversation between law students Alex (the one-name actress Maïwenn) and Marie (Cécile De France) in a car passing through a highly unscenic part of France. It is a windblown prairie, with ugly high-tension lines leading the way to the nearest nuclear power plant.

Alex, who has scarier teeth than Carly Simon, is baring her ivories as she complains about her boyfriend and his taste for Brazilian girls. Marie, a diffident number with a Jean Seberg haircut, gripes about the tenor of the conversation. To make matters worse, the dialogue is dubbed, lazily, inconsiderately, by someone doing French-accented English. (It sounds like a Dutch woman with a stuffed nose.) Presently the two girls arrive at the last house on the left, a farmhouse deep in the countryside. They are greeted by an eminently disposable dad, a mom and a little kid in a cowboy suit. All, we're assured, will be filleted by the heavy-breathing killer before too long.

But it still takes time for the film to shift into gear. What comes next resembles a walk-though at the Museum for the Easily Startled. That bathroom mirror? Change the angle and SURPRISE, there's another face in it! How about this cage of parrots: birds that speak, uncanny! A china doll with a crack in its face: look, its eye is missing! A clothesline creaking in the wind! A cornfield—who knows what walks between the rows? A windup bear that plays a little tin drum! Not as scary as a windup monkey with bulging eyes that bangs on cymbals, but, still... . And finally, for the most horrifying plot point of all: potential lesbian attraction! If lesbians don't curdle your blood, call the Red Cross right now—they need your hemoglobin for anticoagulants!

Speaking of blood, High Tension delivers its share. The R rating means a bit more freight than this week's Dimension Films teen-chopper. A slashed throat effect is particularly jump-worthy. Aja shows something almost like taste when he lets the worst of Alex's ordeal take place off-camera, with horrible snuffling noises inflaming the imagination. Dispensing with the French tradition of thrillers that twist the nerves rather than severing them, Aja tries for a 1970s grindhouse look by filming in a part of Europe that looks as much like Nebraska as possible. He also brings on a very American car chase between the killer's rust-bucket torture van and a muscle car complete with the Confederate Stars and Bars on the back. Unfortunately, what you look for in homages is a chance to top the originals (as in Kung Fu Hustle) rather than to chart the pathetic eagerness with which they sink into familiar routines.

High Tension (R; 91 min.), directed by Alexandre Aja, written by Aja and Grégory Levasseur, photographed by Maxime Alexandre and starring Cécile De France and Maïwenn, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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