Switchblade Romance (High Tension, Haute Tension) first published by Movie Gazette, 15 Oct 2004
If there is a kind of music that you dislike and dismiss, it all sounds the same, whereas if you like it and give it your due attention, you can notice a whole spectrum of delightfully nuanced differences between each and every track. The same is true of the slasher film (or of any subgenre, for that matter). To some, all these films are reducible to a sadistic killer, hapless quarry and a fanbase of questionable, even morally suspicious, taste. Yet for slasher connoisseurs, it is the pursuit not just of victims, but of variation itself, which brings the thrilling pleasure – and there are always new, unexpected avenues down which familiar variations can be chased.
Take the French slasher Switchblade Romance. Opening with a horrifically scarred Marie (Cécile de France) narrating what has happened onto tape, and allowing an early glimpse of the killer, a murderously psychotic hick rapist (Philippe Nahon), getting head in his old Citroën van from a head that is severed from its body, it is clear that Switchblade Romance is going to conform to the Seventies model of ‘survival’ horror (think Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes), where the emphasis is not on identifying the killer so much as on having a final girl outrun, outwit and outlive him. When this madman mercilessly slaughters the entire family of Marie’s friend Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), and throws Alex herself, bound and gagged, into the back of his van, he draws the resourceful Marie into a bloody game of cat-and-mouse from which only one of them can emerge alive – except that, along the film’s rural by-ways and backwoods, director and co-writer Alexandre Aja has laid a trap for the unwary viewer which takes Switchblade Romance from survivalist shocker to a nightmare of an altogether different kind.
There is plenty for fans of the slasher film to relish here. Aja knows how to ratchet up the tension to a point where it becomes barely tolerable (the film’s original French title, Haute Tenasion, means ‘high tension’), and he does not hold back on the bone-crunching gore, making Switchblade Romance a visceral assault on the senses – but the final surprise which makes this film different, also strangely lets it down. Although this trick ending is telegraphed both verbally and visually from very early on, it is also falsely concealed by (blood-)red herrings which represent some of the most glaring breaches of the contract between filmmaker and filmgoer to be seen in recent cinema, and will leave viewers feeling sorely cheated. Put simply, the film does not play fair – and it need not have been this way, as any number of (non-slasher) films with similar, but better handled twists has shown.
Still, Aja is clearly an immense talent to watch, as he both displays a thorough knowledge of horror tropes past, and remixes them into a squirm-inducingly difficult viewing ordeal that is psychologically – if not quite narratively – satisfying.
strap: Alexandre Aja’s intense survival slasher brings a subversive psychological angle to its cat-and-mouse thrills