The slasher film is a quintessential subgenre for horror, giving the world figures like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger: all male figures chasing women with knives. But for this week’s horror recommendation, I’m bringing you a slasher of the likes you’ve never seen. Alexandre Aja’s High Tension takes the slasher film and turns it on his head. It is essential viewing for fans of the genre and of the portrayal of gender in horror film.
High Tension follows student Marie (Cecile de France) and her friend, Alex (Maïwenn) as they travel to Alex’s family home in the French countryside. It is a secluded place, quiet and surrounded by corn, perfect for studying, Alex says. However, there isn’t much studying when a deranged killer arrives at the home, killing Alex’s family and kidnapping her, leaving Marie behind. What ensues is Marie’s quest to save her friend from the psychopath and prove how much she cares for her.
High Tension is part of the New French Extremity movement, films that are nihilistic, gory, and, well, extreme. They aim to disgust while also interrogating the current cultural moment, from racism to gender to class. Nothing about them is easy — their goal is to create nothing but discomfort and nauseate. High Tension in particular aims to look at class, as the killer is represented as a lower class worker, and gender.
Aja takes the slasher trope of the final girl and completely subverts expectations, which is one of the best parts of the film. Slashers follow such a predictable formula: killer murders each person one by one in increasingly awful ways as one woman watches her friends get killed off. But in High Tension, it is killer vs. Marie in a game of almost reverse cat and mouse. Instead of the killer seeking out Marie, Marie is chasing him, trying to find Alex.
While High Tension is a phenomenal piece of horror cinema, it is not without its problems, particularly regarding queer representation. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes about queerness, particularly lesbian identities. While it was released in 2005, that is no excuse for villainizing queer identities in the name of a more interesting narrative. Revealing much more would spoil the film, but it is a word of warning. High Tension is a phenomenal horror film that subverts expectations, while also exposing the genre’s need for better queer representation.
Watch if you like: slashers like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, Raw, queer cinema even if it’s problematic