Haute Tension (AKA Switchblade Romance, AKA High Tension)

Despite having an imaginative death scene involving a head stuck in a banister meeting an item of heavy furniture, and also a graphic throat slitting – Haute Tension is comparatively light on the gore and violence that is now expected from more recent offerings in the new wave of French extreme cinema. To avoid being misleading, the aforementioned scenes and others do provide plenty to cringe at but they do not form the staple of this fine example of modern European horror film-making.

Haute Tension is a tense psychological stalker movie that uses intrigue and suspense to draw the viewer in and then assaults the senses with brutal killings. There is more to the film than this though, and the plot development which ultimately defines the movie is satisfying and well worked into the story telling. Haute Tension is very definitely a film that is ruined by spoilers, so for those who have yet to see the film this review will be light on details.

The film begins with Marie traveling to stay at her college friend Alexia’s family farm house. As night falls a sadistic killer enters the home and brutally slays its inhabitants apart from the two girls. With Alexia bound in the murderers van, Marie secretes herself on board and the three hit the road. From here the story powers forward with twists and turns towards a fantastic conclusion.

Haute Tension delivers because it doesn’t neglect any aspect of what a good horror movie should contain. It is filled with the atmosphere of dread so excellently honed in the best of the 1970’s slasher movies. There is tension generated by protagonists being stalked – having to hide and keep silent because their lives depend on it. We see the brutality the villain is capable of and the methodical way he goes about it, causing us to fear him more. Yet there are clues throughout the film that on first viewing we do not pay too much attention to, but none-the-less contribute to a subliminal sense that all is not as it seems. Repeated viewing of this film yields an even greater understanding and appreciation of how finely woven the tale really is.

The character of Marie is complex, and it is a shame that to avoid spoilers this review will not delve into those complexities – although I invite discussion in the comments section. Further to this however, she is quite unlike any other female character from the “slasher” genre and with precious little room for originality in horror this was appreciated. A pole apart from the plastic scream queens of Hollywood, Marie alone provides enough interest to keep watching. Add this to the excellent pacing of the film, and you have a horror movie which engages the viewer from start to finish.

Fans of the genre will love Haute Tension for all the reasons outlined above, but it is also an excellent starting point for those new to extreme cinema or for people who simply do not want the difficult experience of A Serbian Film or Martyrs. Haute Tension is not heavy-going like these films, it is horrific in places but not in a manner that will disturb or upset (unless the viewer is particularly sensitive).

Haute Tension is tense, exciting, shocking and intelligent – it is a “must see” for any aficionado of modern horror cinema and is highly recommended for anyone with a penchant for great films with a darker edge to them.

Martyrs

Martyrs is like one of those chandeliers made of human bones. It’s grizzly and horrifying yet strangely beautiful. It is also a film that engages the viewer because just when you think you have it pigeon-holed, it changes tack and leads you in a new direction.

Martyrs takes us on a journey that starts with a young girl (Lucie) escaping from a disused abattoir where she has clearly been the victim of prolonged torture. She leaves behind others in her bid to flee her personal hell. Eventually she is taken in at a children’s home where she befriends another girl there called Anna. Some time in the future, as young women, Anna attempts to help Lucie who has tracked down accomplices to her previous tormentors. From here Anna experiences the suffering of Lucies past, and uncovers a new nightmare of her own. The film builds to a conclusion that you won’t see coming and will leave you to speculate as to its meaning long after the film has finished.

On first viewing one never knows what is going to happen next, this in itself is unsettling and exciting – two key elements to any horror film; but Martyrs is hard to classify. It is not really a horror film, but is certainly horrific throughout and genuinely scary in parts. It is also an effective drama and a nerve shredding thriller. It mixes perfectly-executed intrigue with uncomfortable violence. The feelings we share for the protagonists plight, and the motivations that put her there, are quite unlike in any other genre movie. All this is done in a manner which makes the film a thing of beauty, it is exquisite yet brutal.

I have to admit, I did get confused with the movie at roughly the half way point – and, as often the best films do, it definitely benefits from repeat viewings. Perhaps something was lost in the language barrier, but equally the film is one of those treats in an age of Hollywood dumbing-down that does not spell out every last detail, some aspects of the film are not as literal as they first appear. There are certainly head-scratching moments, but none of this detracts from the overall power and accomplishment of this excellent piece of film making.

There is a current trend to use the awful phrase “torture porn”. This is often utilised by those who did not like or appreciate a particular film. I suspect that the intention of such a term is to be condescending without giving justification, but if it means gratuitous violence for the sheer enjoyment of it, please be assured that this term does not apply to Martyrs.

Martyrs does have many challenging scenes, as a film it is an assault on the nervous system and the mind – but it does not employ cheap tricks and buckets of gore. Where some films might show you hacked limbs, Martyrs makes you cringe at the dull thud of a punch to a defenceless face. We feel the resignation of someone forced to endure unrelenting attacks, knowing that there will be no mercy from their tormentors. Just at the point at which the film invokes the viewer to consider their motivation for watching the suffering on screen, it delivers with a payoff that was as unexpected as it was a rewarding cinematic experience.

I am fully aware that it is slightly pretentious to call a film “challenging” as I did previously, but the experience that Martyrs gives is indeed a challenge in every way. It forces us to endure vicariously with Anna’s suffering, it challenges individual beliefs and it forces us to think for ourselves about how the film ends. Pascal Laugier, the writer and director, could have wrapped everything up for us with a little bow but he would have been letting us down if he had done so. The ending of Martyrs is what elevates it to being one of my favourite ever films.

It is to be expected that some people not familiar with this style of film-making will find a movie such as Martyrs too much to cope with. It is human nature, therefore, to want to attack the very thing that has made them feel this way. If they can belittle it they do not have to confront what it has stirred inside them. It is for this reason some may wish to patronise Martyrs for having a depth beyond a “plot by numbers” approach. Why can’t a film such as this carry a message? Why can’t it provoke thoughts and conjecture in excess of the basic movie experience? Just because a film has offended or upset in the build up to its conclusion does not mean it is unable to leave valid questions in the mind of the audience, indeed it is more likely to have done so. Fans of extreme cinema will know that to appreciate the payoff, they must endure the ride to the end. Martyrs beats you up until it leaves you raw and receptive to its final scenes.

Martyrs is one of those films that if you allow yourself to enter the world the director has created, and let him tell you a story, you will be thinking about it for months and years to come. Those who cannot see past its cruelty, and the reasons for it, will unfortunately see only that. It is a gem of extreme film-making and I strongly urge you to experience it for yourself.

Cradle Of Fear

The first thing you need to know about Alex Chandon’s 2001 low-budget horror is that it has many imperfections – however like any treasured possession these can, and should, be overlooked. What lies beneath the odd shortcoming is a dark and twisted tale guaranteed to churn the stomach and shred the nerves. Let’s get the negatives out of the way and forgotten about from the start…

The acting is good in places but a bit wooden in others, however it is never terrible and certainly never bad enough to spoil a scene and take the viewer out of their immersion in the film. The texture of the film takes a bit of getting used to; the way it is shot looks from time to time like a cheap commercial – as do a few of the sets. Finally there is one piece of very ill-advised CGI that never fails to raise a smile, such is its cheapness. However none of these issues matter and the film has a sense that it is aware of its failings and doesn’t care. It knows where its strengths lie and sticks to those. With that out of the way, on with the important stuff:

Cradle Of Fear oozes with enthusiasm for horror. It is clearly made by people who love the genre and are not afraid to push the boundaries; in fact there is an obvious relish for doing so. The film consists of four separate vignettes which are tied together by a central story line concerning an incarcerated serial killer and cannibal, called Kemper, and his desire for vengeance on those involved with his murder trial and subsequent imprisonment. He does so using the rites of black magic from his cell in a lunatic asylum and the service of his supernaturally murderous son, known as The Man, played by Dani Filth of goth-metal band Cradle Of Filth.

As soon as the movie opens to graphically depict a disemboweled girl on a bed, the viewer is left in no doubt as to what they are about to let themselves in for. Herein lies Cradle Of Fears strongest card and why it is to be adored by lovers of true horror film-making: the special make-up effects are sensational. It is an irony that the film proves beyond a doubt why physical effects are scary and CGI effects are not. This is an ultra-gory film and is very violent, however it is also held together by a solid narrative and storyline with pacing delivered in a manner which is likely to engage those not usually predisposed to enjoying excessive gore.

The aforementioned gutless young lady provides the starting point of the first of the quartets of terror that Cradle Of Fear inflicts on its audience. Starring British B-Movie scream queen favorite Emily Booth as a beautiful goth out on a drug fueled night of clubbing, it quickly descends into terror involving demon rape, vile and genuinely frightening hallucinations and a conclusion that literally turns the stomach.

Next, two girls are introduced who intend to break into an elderly mans house and steal the money he keeps in a tin. Lessons are learned about the nature of greed, and how far some people are prepared to go for money. Bloody, violent lessons – naturally.

The next tale begins with a husband a wife snorting cocaine whilst speeding through the streets of London in an open-top sports car. When they run over and kill a tramp, they are relived that the car is not damaged and continue on their way home. After a bout of amputee sex (the husband is missing a leg) is ended prematurely by impotence, the distraught man goes about finding a corrupt doctor and brand new limb.

Finally Richard, an IT worker is introduced, who is obsessed with violent websites, and eventually stumbles on a difficult to access members-only site called The Sick Room. Here webcams can be viewed showing abducted individuals. The user can pay to select the criteria and level of abuse which is then enacted on the person onscreen. This becomes so compulsive, Richard loses his job, possessions and house until he decides to track down the operators of the website for some firsthand action.

The story of Kemper is entwined throughout these stories and the evil gothic presence of The Man is present in each. The film then proceeds towards its ending with more blood and guts until the screen is dripping red and few acts of violence imaginable have not been depicted.

The realism of the special make-up effects is what will turn horror addicts on and repulse all others in equal measure. During the course of the movie we see, amongst many other atrocities, disembowelment, razors slashed across a face, a broken bottle smashed into an eye socket and a leg hacked off. What separates this from run-of-the-mill physical horror is the skill with which it is executed. So brilliantly is each effect constructed the camera can linger for a long time, possibly too long, until the viewer is squirming in their seat and in some cases averting their gaze. This sense of realism is not avoided by the director either, if a limb is being severed with nothing but a knife – it takes a long time and is a messy job, with extra effort being required to get through the tough bone. Make no mistake, this film is horrific and where other films fail because the gore is too over-the-top to the point of humor – Cradle Of Fear manages to keep the mood repulsive and sinister.

The physical effects are not the only strength of this low budget shocker though. The whole atmosphere of the film is dark, gothic and ominous. Alex Chandon does not lose sight of the main plot point which is that Kemper is a baby murdering cannibal who uses black magic and the assistance of his demonic son (who is suitably clad in industrial goth fashion) to exact revenge on those he feels have wronged him. Large parts of the film feel like a very bad acid trip or a nightmare that only the most deranged of minds would be capable of conceiving. This leads to a very effective fluctuation between the heightened tension of fear and the powerful revulsion to the grotesque imagery.

If the viewer is able to overlook the obvious failings of Cradle Of Fear, and appreciate it for what it is, and for refusing to pretend to be something it is not, then the horror fan will be richly rewarded. More than most, this feels like a film for horror fans made by horror fans and it does not care if film-snobs and mainstream audiences hate it. It is a film with an uncompromising attitude, viewers with a similar nature will find it rewarding.

Written exclusively for Horror Addicts, and will subsequently appear on the author’s website:

www.transgressivecinema.com

Mum & Dad

Mum & Dad is an independent British horror film set amongst the austere backdrop of London’s Heathrow Airport and the constant drone of jet engines. The area is bleak and characterized by fences topped with razor wire and depressing homogenized rows of terraced houses which have depleted as the airport grew up around them. Each abode is the same as the next – but one of them hides a pair of serial killers: Mum and Dad.

Lena is a polish girl who works as a cleaner at the airport. She shares a shift with Birdie, who despite being light-fingered and a gossip, seems likable enough. Birdie introduces Lena to Elbie, her “adopted brother” who is a mute and also works at the airport. At the end of one shift Birdie orchestrates a situation whereby Lena misses the last bus, and insists that Lena comes with her so that her Dad can give her a ride home. Of course this never comes to pass, and after arriving at Birdies house, Lena is bludgeoned and drugged – awakening some time later to the start of a hellish surreal nightmare that she may never survive.

At this early stage in the film’s progression, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the plot is setting up a scenario seen regularly in copy-cat films since the success of movies such as Saw and Hostel. Whilst Mum & Dad does not shy away from extremely sadistic and nasty violence, it is not a gore film and instead relies upon creating a horrifically bizarre environment which is ruled over by the most deranged of minds. The fear comes from our empathy with Lena, and our vicarious terror is ratcheted up with every scene in this terrible scenario.

This empathy comes from Lena being a brilliantly written and acted character. For all the budget constraints involved with British independent film-making, it usually excels at the fundamentals – such as writing, acting and characterization. Lena is smart but still bound by realistic human character traits. She does what the viewer would do in many situations, or at least she does not do anything distractingly unbelievable – it’s a nice change from the idiots some mainstream horror would usually have us cheer for, or indeed the heroines who suddenly become almost superhuman when under threat.

Lena is awoken from her drug-induced stupor by terrified howls of pain coming from the adjacent room – several loud thuds later and the screaming stops. The door bursts open and an over-weight man with glasses and mole-like features enters, he is wearing underpants and a vest, clutching a hammer and is covered in blood. A moment later and a tall, thin, well-presented woman with angular features enters through a second door. All three stare at each other intently, until the woman strides over to Lena and states “I’m Mum. He’s Dad. You live with us now!”

It is made abundantly clear that Mum and Dad are serial killers – but very different to each other in their psychopathic tendencies. Dad is a violent sexual predator who likes to murder in fits of rage, whereas Mum is a true sadist who likes to torture with finesse for the physical delight it brings her. Dad enjoys to hack and bludgeon, Mum favors the use of spikes and knives – they are both homicidal lunatics.

Lunatics they are beyond doubt, but within the fortress of their own home they have created a world where their manner of living is completely normal. They acquire “children” and this is why Lena finds herself captive. Her “adopted” brother and sister (Birdie and Elbie) have become totally immersed in this culture and accept it as a standard existence. In one scene the rest of his family patiently wait for Dad to finish pleasuring himself into a hacked off chunk of human flesh before they introduce him to Lena; once he is done, Dad tells her that “family is everything”.

Family breakfast’s see dismembered body-parts brought out for disposal whilst people eat toast. Pornographic movies play on the TV and Dad inappropriately kisses and gropes Birdie (who reciprocates) before settling down with the morning paper. Every aspect of this film superimposes the normal with the deranged, and this unhinged atmosphere is the signature of the movie. This is aided by the stand-out aspect of the production – Perry Benson’s performance as Dad. Benson is a stalwart British actor and carries the film with both his appearance and the portrayal of his character. His hateful, twisted and completely unbalanced delivery is terrifying to behold.

The writer and director of Mum & Dad (Steven Sheil) describes it as “a fucked-up-family film”. Succinct as this summary is, it doesn’t even begin to do justice to the horror of this movie. Lena is completely at the mercy of a matriarch and patriarch whose lunacy now controls her entire existence, if she fits in and does not cause a problem she is told that she will be fine – if not there will be Dad to answer to. “Fine”, of course, in this instance is relative!

The unsettling torment of Lena’s predicament is sharply focused in the knife-edge balance of her captor’s insanity. Using the language of a normal parental unit, the actions of Mum and Dad are starkly juxtaposed. Calling Lena “her angel, sent from heaven” mum inserts spikes through her skin and lacerates her with a scalpel – all the while telling her to keep Mum happy so as not to upset Dad.

Playing it smart and trying to stay on the good side of Mum and Dad until a suitable chance of escape or rescue presents itself, Lena incurs the increasingly bitter resentment of Birdie who dreads the inevitable result of not being Mum and Dad’s favorite anymore. Lena now has to fear her new parents as well as some particularly twisted sibling rivalry as the tension reaches stratospheric levels towards the film’s conclusion.

Mum & Dad was made under Film London’s “Microwave” project, where the budget is capped at a maximum of £100,000. This is a miniscule amount of money on which to shoot a feature and it is to the credit of all involved that what was produced looks and feels like it was shot on ten-times that budget. Moreover, the result was a gripping and terrifying film that exemplifies all that is good about British independent horror cinema. If you want a well crafted horror film that is brilliantly acted, full of threat and tension, claustrophobic, violent and completely deranged – Mum & Dad comes highly recommended.

This article is written exclusively for Horror Addicts, but will appear subsequently on the authors website:

WWW.TRANSGRESSIVECINEMA.COM