"Okay; so you figure once he kills the mom, the kid, and the girl, there's no one left to slaughter."
My friend was trying to ease my mind regarding the cascading torrent of blood during an early scene in the French import High Tension. At that point I peeked out from behind the protective forcefield that is my notebook and made a confession: "This is my first slasher movie."
It's true. Despite over three decades roaming this big blue marble I've never crossed paths with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. I haven't seen any of the horror classics or even the Scream trilogy. Craven, Romero, and Argento are all names I've heard, but I couldn't identify any of them if they were to walk up to me and leave cleavers in my skull.
By now you may be wondering whether I'm actually qualified to discuss High Tension. I'm not. But for some reason I wanted to see this flick. Perhaps I figured the French would be subtle about their gore. Golly, was I wrong.
Alex and Marie are headed for Alex's home as High Tension opens. They drive, they bicker, and once the girls reach their destination they settle in. Then the doorbell rings and the butchering commences. The initial offing is extremely gruesome (and almost caused me to bail out), another death is disturbingly protracted yet well shot, and one murder is thankfully off-screen. But the killer, who we first meet as he's getting (severed) head in his rusty truck, is much smitten with Alex's Cro-Magnon beauty and abducts her. So the heretofore hidden Marie, with her taut body and pixie haircut, takes off in pursuit.
And then there's a nifty twist that I won't reveal, but I think my exact words were "This just got good."
High Tension, which was made in 2003 by a director (Alexandre Aja) who was made in 1978, is the latest manifestation of a growing trend: Hit foreign films getting a wide American release in pretty much their original form (i.e., Kung Fu Hustle). And like Hustle's Stephen Chow, Aja has obviously cut his teeth on Hollywood movies. He pays homage to the often-misogynistic clichés of the genre in which he's working but doesn't always do what's expected. The handheld camerawork is fluid and unobtrusive, the pacing is airtight, and the tension is... well, it's high. Just don't give too much thought to the logic behind any of it --- Aja sure didn't.
"This is so totally Texas Chainsaw Massacre," my surprisingly bloodthirsty friend gleefully observed as the killer fired up the nearest power tool.
Whatever. I couldn't pick Leatherface out of a lineup.
Being a movie star has very little to do with a person's ability to act and everything to do with the camera's affection for that person. Penélope Cruz is a movie star, and up until now her fame could arguably be attributed to her exotic beauty. But in Sergio Castellitto's imperfect Italian melodrama Don't Move, Cruz uglies it up and, unable to fall back on her natural allure, turns in a deft performance that hints at some formidable talent lurking behind that gorgeous visage.
Castellitto also stars in the film as Timoteo, a relatively affluent surgeon with an equally successful wife (Greta Scacchi lookalike Claudia Gerini) and a 15-year-old daughter whose bike accident sets the film into motion. As he waits for his wife to return from London, Timoteo's solitary vigil for his severely injured daughter causes him to reminisce about his relationship with a small-town hotel maid named Italia (Cruz) just prior to his daughter's birth.
Timoteo met Italia after his car broke down in her village --- he used her phone and then proceeded to rape her. The reasons for the brutality are unclear, and since this is the key event, it hampers the rest of the film. Italia and Timoteo eventually embark on an affair, with tragic consequences.
Don't Move was adapted from a novel by a woman (Margaret Mazzantini, Castellitto's wife), yet strangely smacks of masculine fantasy. We know Timoteo regrets his actions, but that doesn't deter him. He rapes and lies without ever being subjected to any actual repercussions himself --- only unconditional love and acceptance from the women in his life, followed by a very tidy wrap-up to his dilemma.
But I keep going back to Penélope Cruz's performance. She's nearly unrecognizable here, with her bushy eyebrows, streaked hair, defeated posture, and gap-toothed grimace. She's definitely not pleasant to look at, but she is a treat to watch. This is her movie and the best reason to see this frustratingly flawed film.
High Tension(R) opens Friday, June 10, at Canandaigua Theatre and Greece Ridge 12 | Don't Move (NR) opens Friday, June 10, at the Little Theatre