Also known as HIGH TENSION (Haute Tension), Alexandre Aja's moody French take on the American slasher movie is a relentless exercise in finely tuned suspense and grue-soaked atmosphere. Slick without being sanitary and sharp as a tack, it breathes life into a subgenre that wore out somewhere between FRIDAY THE 13th's part 1 and 2, and holds some genuine surprises without completely conning the viewer.

Driving to the French countryside, Marie (Cecil de France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) arrive at the latter's family home. Settling in to her room, Marie masturbates in bed over Alex after glimpsing her in the shower, when a gruff truck driver parks outside the front door. Covered in grease and wearing a boiler suit, Le teur (Philippe Nahon) decapitates Marie's dad, disembowels the family dog and blasts her two little brothers Tom and Hendrix with a shotgun in the crop field.

After Le teur beats up and ties straight Alex, Marie sneaks around the house out of safety but her efforts to call the police are thwarted since the phone lines are torn out. Hiding in a cupboard, she witnesses the killing of Alex's mother - whom she comes face to face with, as her throat is ripped open. When Alex is deposited in the killer's truck, Marie tries unsuccessfully to untie her shackles (when Le teur goes back indoors) and is suddenly locked in by the unwitting killer when he returns.

Continuing the deception as they stop at a petrol station, Marie sneaks out into the main shop as the madman fills his tank up. Fruitlessly trying to elicit help from the attendant, she hides behind the shelves when shifty Le teur enters, promptly killing the man with a hatchet. Fleeing to the toilets, Marie hides in a cubicle as the maniac relieves himself. As he drives off with Alice in tow, Marie steals the dead worker's car, giving chase to save her best friend but walking onto a shocking twist.

Resourceful and pacy, SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE doesn't waste a second to rev up what is essentially an engine of unremitting anxiety and terror. Eschewing lengthy back-stories and superfluous characterisations, director Aja strips elements down to the bone and gets cracking immediately. Opening with TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE wide-angled road movie images, it borrows iconography from other films to ominously clue us in what's to come. Operating on clever juxtapositions, such as Marie's fingering herself in bed matched by the quivering headlight of Le teur's truck, it drowns us in dark but inventive ambience.

Contrasting the blazing dawns with icy, nocturnal blues, the crisp camerawork and precise lighting enhances some truly electric images. Creating a fine backdrop for the fearful mayhem, Aja encourages a diverse colour palette in the manner of filmmakers like a mid-career Dario Argento: the petrol stations, public toilets, and fairy tale woods are shaded with striking variety - and props such as lighters add infernal glows to characters' faces. Although merely a cipher, Nahon's Le teur is a fine villain, both amusing and gruesome enough to conjure memories of the best horror comics. His eyes hidden by his cap and killer status clued by his Jason type boiler suit, he's immediately signalled as a presence as opposed to a well-drawn person.

The sole motivation being that he's a nasty old pervert, we first see Le teur giving himself a blow job with a rancid severed head (!), and he's appropriately covered in filth and grease throughout. Murder scenes are brutally nasty, and are beautifully aided by famed special effects expert Gianetto di Rossi - the grand veteran who has worked with arty masters like Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini, as well as canonised gore hounds such as the beloved Lucio Fulci (DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, THE BEYOND). Textured with fat, sweat and gristle amid the pouring claret, De Rossi's throat ripping gore is magnificently layered and the stunning car wreck near the end is a marvel of art direction, as man and vehicle blend together after being mangled into a torn and bloodied heap.

With a late face-basing scene (by a club wrapped in barbed wire!), the film is carrying the momentum of the astonishing IRREVERSIBLE (directed by Gaspar Noe), which, significantly, also features the ruggedly appealing Nahon (who's major breakthrough came in Noe's acclaimed I STAND ALONE, as the antisocial butcher). Theatrical actress Le Besco spends most of her time tied up and screaming, but de France's Marie is the most interesting performer. Forced to lose weight and have her hair cut short, she makes an aptly tomboyish heroin, but even her eerily gaunt face and unhealthy appearance cannot clue us in to a major surprise surrounding her character. If the twist sacrifices the integrity of much of what we've seen, it functions to make us look deeper into her own disturbed psyche.

Optimum give us a fine 2.35:1 anamorpic transfer, and plenty of good extras. Included are interviews with Nahon, de France and Le Besco. Nahon, interestingly, claims that he resisted the idea of playing the killer at first, since he's been typecast after his breakthrough role in I STAND ALONE, but found the implications of the twist ending appealing. De France, so impressive as Marie, talks with enthusiasm about the production, and highlights the physical training she went through to gain the right 'look', including workouts with a former Muay Thai amateur world champion. Le Besco candidly admits that she needed a break from the demands of theatre, and gladly embraced a scream queen role.

Perhaps best of all is the dialogue with Gianetto de Rossi, as he discusses how he adapts his effects to the demands of filmmakers. Also, he fondly discusses his days on the set of ZOMBIE, when worms found their way up a zombie-performer's nostrils, and is an extra that stands out among the audio commentary, making of featurette and usual trailers.

Review by Matthew Sanderson

Released by Optimum
Region 2 PAL
Rated 18
Extras : see main review