(In French, On Cable TV, November 2017) Curiosity may or may not kill the cat, but it certainly leads movie reviewers to questionable choices, such as watching Haute Tension despite not liking extreme horror and knowing all about the film’s certifiably insane Big Twist. A core movie in the “New French Extremity” curriculum of extremely violent and intentionally transgressive horror movies, Haute Tension is also an early calling card for writer/director Alexandre Aja, who has since gone on to a Hollywood career. Since I don’t really like gory horror, I put Haute Tension on as background noise while I was doing something else and dared the movie to catch my attention. It only did so in small moments: there is a lot of screaming and crying in the film as it seems to show a woman trying to rescue her friend from a psycho killer. Québec-based French-language horror movie channel “FrissonTV” doesn’t provide closed captioning yet, but that doesn’t matter much given that most of the film’s soundtrack is composed of crying, screaming or disquieting musical cues in-between bouncy pop songs used ironically. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Haute Tension is that it does provide a lot of foreshadowing for the Big Twist (starting with one of the film’s first lines, “I dreamt I was chasing myself”) but also more grist for calling it completely bonkers. Even shrugging off the film as having an unreliable narrator really doesn’t explain much of the film’s first half (including an entire truck). Is it important, though? The point of Haute Tension isn’t the plot or the heroine-as-psycho-killer twist: it’s about the various violent deaths graphically portrayed, the relentless tension of the film and the writer/director impressing horror-loving audiences with whatever horror-loving audiences love to see. I’m not part of that audience, so even noting that the film’s big twist makes partial sense and pointing out that the tension is often effective doesn’t really mean that I liked the result. But I was curious about Haute Tension and now I’m not curious any more, which means that I can scratch the film from my to-see list and move on to something else.
(On DVD, July 2016) It’s amazing how I get more mini-epiphanies during mediocre films than from great ones. The takeaway lesson from The Hills Have Eyes, as far as criticism theory is concerned, is this: I like horror movies that don’t make me feel like a sociopath. To unpack this a bit: When I’m watching a horror film, do I get the impression that it’s telling me to cheer for the villain? Have more time, attention and money been spent on the antagonist(s) rather than the heroes? If I shuffle through my favourite horror films of the past few years (It Follows, The Babadook, The Conjuring, etc.), it’s clear that they care for their protagonists and that they mean something beyond throwing gory violence on-screen. “Bad stuff happens to young people” isn’t a plot fit to make me like the result. Where this remake of The Hills Have Eyes comes in is that despite considerable effort designing and showcasing its mutated villains, it does have the decency to step back from the abyss just early enough to avoid complete nihilism. It is rather well executed for a schlocky creature feature: There’s a particularly unbearable sequence midway through in which three or four horrible things happen at once, and the movie becomes a full-on horror show of atrocities. I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s well done to a disturbing extent thanks to director Alexandre Aja’s savviness. The rest of the film isn’t so remarkable: As an example of the “crazed hillbillies want to kill our heroes” sub-genre, it has the appeal of taking place in a foreboding location and of sparing a larger number of its protagonists than you’d expect. Otherwise, it gets a bit off-putting in how it tries to give more personality to its monsters than its heroes, even painstakingly explaining the whys and hows of their origins when a simple mushroom cloud would have been more than sufficient. Save for the awful middle sequence, there isn’t much more to The Hills Have Eyes than your middling horror film, mass-produced for mindless gore-hound consumption. There’s a public for that … but I’m not included.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Tone control is a tricky thing, and few films show this as well as Horns. Adapting Joe Hill’s novel is not an easy proposition, considering how the book veers between comedy and horror and heartfelt redemption story. Novelists can usually control tone better than directors: prose works differently, and what shows up on-screen often suffers from excessive literalism. So it is that while Horns’ screenplay considerably simplifies and strengthens the book’s story (to the point where reading a synopsis of the book can feel like a comedy of overstuffed plotlines), this big-screen version can’t quite manage its transition from comedy to horror. The film is best in its first half, as our protagonist discovers that he’s been cursed with invisible horns, the power of persuasion and a gift for allowing strangers to tell them their deepest secrets. This leads to a number of very funny sequences, but those laughs get fewer and fewer as his newfound powers lead him to understand what happened on the night of his girlfriend’s murder –a murder for which he’s the prime suspect. Chaos engulfs his small town, friends turn to enemies, parents can’t be trusted and the secrets he discover may not be the ones he wants to hear about. Daniel Radcliffe is quite good in the lead role, with Juno Temple being as angelic as she can be as the (idealized?) dead girlfriend. Despite Horns’ problems, this is Alexandre Aja’s least repulsive film yet and one that suggests that he may have a future beyond genre-horror shlock.
(On TV, August 2015) A common failing for horror movies is to fail to match the surface shocks with a coherent background acting as explanation. Some filmmakers aren’t even interested in doing so, and their films feel like a series of shocks untroubled with justifications. But I trust that viewers like a bit of substance to go with the scares. Mirrors, to its credit, almost gets it right: its surface shocks have to do with reflective surfaces and what can reach characters from behind the mirror. The gather good atmosphere supports an effective sense of dread (especially during its very end), and the film’s various gags get to have a bit of fun with the concept of “mirrors”. As Mirrors develops its mythology further, though, we’re asked to believe in increasingly arbitrary details, inconsistent powers and a rather dull origin story. Keifer Sutherland does what he can to keep things interesting, and Paula Patton does her darnedest in an underwritten role, but there really isn’t much more here than a few showpieces for director Alexandre Aja. Mirrors is far more interesting in small disconnected moments than as a coherent whole, and even a few effective shots don’t make more of a lasting impact if they’re impossible to place in an effective story.