This will reveal plot details: so do no not read unless you’ve seen the film or don’t care if it is spoiled.
The words, “I won’t let anyone come between us anymore,” echo through the first two minutes of Alexandre Aja’s sophomore film High Tension. Aja’s film has shown American audiences that horror is still alive, but just not in America. In the recent years the horror genre has churned out PG-13 crowd friendly films that no one likes, but luckily we have the French who continue to provide us original and brutal images. Aja’s film
is not only an hour and thirty minute homage to seventies slasher films, but also a film about repressed sexuality. The slasher film, as a subgenre of horror, tends to be driven by our anger, our repressed state, and our primordial consciousness that we are always trying to deny. Haute Tension uses these ideas in a very innovative fashion. The main character Marie is not only the protagonist of the film but also the villain, her rampage is brought on by years of denying her homosexuality and more importantly her identity. The villains in slasher films do not symbolize humanity; they are a part of it. The killer is not supernatural, or at least they did not begin that way, he or she is in many ways an ordinary person. They have a logic that we can understand. Usually they have suffered an injustice and need retribution. Slasher films are centered on vengeance, either against people who caused them or someone close to them harm, or somehow symbolize personal injustice. Haute Tension shows the injustice brought on by a closeted life.
There will be obvious problems with Aja’s film, since he connects homosexuality with the monsterous but to his defense the forces that repress our sexuality are the same forces that create madness. This connection between horror and homosexuality is not new it is an old established norm within Hollywood cinema, but nevertheless it continues to perpetuate negative connotations to homosexual lifestyle. In Harry M. Benshoff’s book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, he writes “even as gay and lesbian people become more visible in ‘real life,’ killer queers continue to abound on the screen. And even when the films themselves problematize these figures by linking them to social oppression they nonetheless still reaffirm for uncritical audiences the semiotic overlap of homosexual and violent killer (232).” Homosexuality has been coded within film since the birth of cinema, but the characters that represented queer life had to also be evil. Filmmakers have made great strides in the last century to show equality, but even though the lesbian in Haute Tension is also the villain, the film works to show that it is society that has created Marie’s homicidal second personality. Homophobia and the fear of being ostracized by friends and peers has lead Marie to repress who she truly is for so long that eventually it caused severe psychological damage.
Marie represents a duality that can be found in all post-modern horror films, we identify with her as the killer and as one of Carol Clover’s final girls. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Horror Film she writes this about the final girl: “She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay alive long enough to be rescued or to kill the attacker herself. But in either case, from 1974 on, the survivor figure has been female (35).” Since the entire film is a culmination of different slasher films from decades ago it is apparent that Aja wanted to make Marie an extremely strong person, to become the final girl. The homages the film makes are very recognizable, such as the beaten up truck from Jeepers Creepers, the concrete saw and the mockery of pain and fear from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a killer in overalls like Michael Myers in Halloween, the shot-for-shot remake of Blue Velvet‘s classic introduction of Frank Booth closet scene, and the axe scene from The Shining are just a few of the more obvious tributes. This movement in horror cinema to homage itself has given the genre a new form of self-reflexivity. “There are a multitude of horror films which employ radical postmodern aesthetic practices to challenge the dominant formal notions of the horror film genre and their ideological underpinnings. These practices include pastiche, (which includes high modern self-reflexivity and/or the yearning for nostalgia) and schizophrenia as a mode of presentation/reception (Benshoff, 233).” Haute Tension relies on an audience’s knowledge of the genre for a fully rewarding experience.
Marie is in love with her best friend Alex, but cannot tell her for two reasons: she believes it will ruin their friendship and she hasn’t come to terms with her own sexual identity. Marie is the most sexually repressed and closeted characters in the horror genre. From the beginning of the film when we watch her nightmare unfold we already know that she has problems. Marie runs through the woods with a deep cut in her stomach and blood caked to the side of her face, finally she makes it to a road and a car swerves to stop. Marie slams her body against the car window and screams for the driver to help her. Later she says that in the dream she was being chased by herself, so when she asks the male driver to help her, this is her way of crying out for the straight life. The moment she wakes up she cannot take her eyes off of Alex who is driving the car. Marie sits up and lights a cigarette, at this moment we realize her masculinity. The way she smokes the cigarette is with force and her hair is extremely short, in this way Marie embodies certain lesbian stereotypes. Alex and Marie have an argument about the previous weekend in which we start picking out Marie’s jealousy. Marie was left at the bar for a few hours while Alex went off with some random guy, so Marie got drunk. When Alex asks her why she was so inebriated Marie’s reply is, “it was your fault for dumping me for three hours to disappear with God knows who… I hope it was worth it?” Alex says, “I’ll say, unbelievable.” Marie looks hurt and the two of them start calling each other harsh names. Marie eventually leans back upset. We find out that they are going to Alex’s parent’s home for the weekend to get some studying done and can only assume that Marie had it in mind to make her move.
The next scene introduces our villain who is pleasuring himself with a severed head. From the beginning we know that this man is horrendously evil and perverted, this is one of Marie’s views of homosexuality.
Marie views homosexuality as perverted and wrong but on the other hand finds pleasure within her sexual attraction. Marie masturbates a few moments after seeing Alex naked in the shower, so she knows what gender she wants to be with but society has told her so many times that it is wrong that she cannot open herself to the idea within reality. So, while she is a monstrous lesbian she is also the hero of her own romance story in her head. When she kills the psychopath it is her way of slaying the dragon to save the princess, it is at this point that she is okay with her sexuality. She kills him to save her lover and to be able to be with her lover. If the psychopath is dead then she can officially come out of the closet. There is a lot of visual representation for Marie’s repression throughout the beginning of the film. She plays with Alex’s bird and the shot makes it look as though her head was inside the cage, imprisoned within the societal beliefs of homosexuality. Her repression is also shown by the use of shadows and hiding her face. Marie and Alex have a conversation about when Marie will finally take the plunge, referring to dating. The whole time they talk about Marie’s love life her face is partly hidden while Alex’s is fully lit, till finally Marie decides to drop the subject and go outside for a cigarette. She says good-night to Alex and tells her that she was happy to have met her family, but the entire time her face is only seen in sections because of blinds on the window. This seems to have the same effect as the bars, there is always an obstruction in nearly every shot of Marie until she kills the psychopath and symbolically comes to terms with who she is. Her repression is lifted to the surface when she masturbates in the attic; it is this pleasure from imagining her best friend and her shame that unleashes the killer. The film crosscuts between Marie masturbating to Alex, then to shots of the cornfield and a truck approaching, then to the other members of the home, back to Marie, and finally the man outside of the house. The music during this scene keeps repeating the refrain, “Just another girl, I love you and remember you’re just another girl.” Other music includes a car ride song with the lyrics, “Why can’t I see you face to face, someday I’ll be with you, I know”
“For the better pat of the twentieth century, homosexuals, like vampires, have rarely cast a reflection in the social looking-glass of popular culture. When they are seen, they are often filtered through the iconography of the horror film: ominous sound cues, shocked reaction shots, or even thunder and lightning. Both movie monsters and homosexuals have existed chiefly in shadowy closets, and when they do emerge from these proscribed places into the sunlit world, they cause panic and fear (2).” In Aja’s film there is a very strong lesbian as empowered woman/heroine image, the horrific fantasy that Marie creates gives her the power to stand up against society’s image of the homosexual – which has been seen as nasty, perverted, slutty, and disgusting by fundamentalists. Her coming out is the moment before she kills him. The psychopath is playing with her piercings while talking to her:
“Why do you care so much about Alex? She turns you on, huh? She does the same thing to me. Yeah! She turns me on too.”
He forces his finger into her mouth and symbolically rapes her. She grabs a rock from beside her and cracks his skull. She then picks up her barbwire bat and hits him in the face eighteen times. Since he still isn’t dead, she resorts to suffocating him and after he is dead she screams out of sadness and victory. She runs to the dungeon where the beast kept her beautiful princess and unlocks the door. Marie is so giddy with joy, “it’s all over now, you have nothing to worry about, I killed him.” Marie unlocks Alex’s shackles and takes the gag out of her mouth. Alex’s first words to Marie are “don’t touch me!” Marie tries to explain that there is nothing left to fear, but Alex continues to tell her to get away. Alex draws the knife that Marie had given her and threatens her with it. Marie says, “You don’t know what you’re saying there was nothing I could do to save them… It was just you, Alex. Everything’s going to be okay for now on you can trust me Alex… Easy now, calm down.” As Marie is trying to explain that Alex was the only one she could save we see flashes of each death and watch Marie committing the act.
Alex finally swings the knife at Marie and cuts her face, a few seconds later she stabs her in the stomach. Marie has spent the entire film trying to be a heroine and do everything to come to terms with her sexuality to the point of being able to ask Alex to love her and all of her trouble is repaid in complete and total rejection. This closes the closet door once again and the psychopath comes back to hunt and kill Alex. “You’ll pay for this you little bitch!” the psychopath yells to Alex as he chases her with a concrete saw.
Just like the older horror films used to ensnare us with their shuddering of denied sexuality. When Frankenstein’s monster reaches out to his newly created mate, even she rejects him. This rejection leads the monster to become self-destructive, and sometimes even more homicidal like the case is with Haute Tension. This understood rejection by Alex and the eventual return to repressed homosexuality is theorized by Freudian psychoanalysis as making one paranoid to the point of trying to eradicate the unacceptable object of desire. He/She kills the driver of a car who is seen both at the beginning and at the end of the film, and tries to cut into the backseat to get to Alex. “I’m gonna tear your head off, “he repeats a few times. He/she also says, “You really know how to drive a woman crazy, you God damn bitch!” During this end sequence we mostly see Marie in her male personality until Alex gives Marie what she wants, acceptance. Alex responds to her badgering, “Yes… I love you! Yes I do, I love you.” Marie turns back into herself and leans down and kisses Alex on the lips. Marie’s smile engulfs her face until Alex rams a metal rod into her chest. Marie then just continues to repeat the line, “I won’t let anyone come between us anymore.”
Haute Tension works to show the duality of homophobia as well as empowered lesbians. Getting back to Marie as the heroine in her muscle car tracking down her true love through the dead of night with no assistance, these images strongly show the power shift that has occurred throughout the last couple decades. As Sarah Trencansky writes in her article, “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980’s Slasher Horror,” these images of women and the youth “subvert mainstream expectations. In fact, the people these films aim to speak to most are the “feminists, children under 17, and wimps,” the unprivileged “other” groups of society.” Contrary to popular belief the image of the final girl stands for equality within the sexes. It goes so far as to empower all people who feel they are being oppressed in one way or another. So, in Haute Tension not only are we given this heroine but also she is lesbian, and the unrepressed side of her is amazing. “Since the demands of the classical Hollywood narrative system usually insists on a heterosexual romance within the stories they construct, the monster is traditionally figured as a force that attempts to block that romance. As such, many monster movies might be understood as being ‘about’ the eruption of some form of queer sexuality into the midst of a resolutely heterosexual milieu (Benshoff, 4).” In this film Marie is her own worst enemy. Borne out of the sexual politics that govern France she lives within a society in which it is better to bastardize and transform sexuality into a monstrosity than to accept it and feel pride for the person you realize you are.
High Tension (Unrated Widescreen Edition)