The New Wave of French Extremity is arguably most influential movements of the 21st century in relation to horror cinema. During the 2000’s, you could say that it gave the genre the savage jumpstart that it needed as it pummelled unsuspecting audiences with ground breaking visceral terror that’s barely been replicated on such a level since. Granted, boundary pushing and taboo shattering horror films have come along since and escalated to transgressive new heights; but very few have managed to turn them into an art form quite like the French did during that golden age.
On a surface level, it’s understandable why many were offended by these films. When it came to delivering the gruesome, they didn’t hold back at all. The New Wave of French Extremity is synonymous with art at its most brutal, mean spirited and nihilistic – and those traits are enough to turn people off and never look back. That being said, it was a movement born from anger and hopelessness; a response to a nation divided by political upheaval. The 90’s marked a turbulent time in France due to the rise of right-wing politics and social anxiety as a result of nationwide terrorist attacks – not to mention the subsequent riots and class divisions burdening society at the time. The same issues carried over into the next decade, and by looking at the current state of the country’s social and political climate, it would seem similar unrest remains. However, in terms of disarray, great art is inspired; and while it might not be to everyone’s taste, it is does serve a purpose.
Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) AKA Switchblade Romance saw the director evoke the spirit of the ‘70’s exploitation. Inspired by the early seminal works of that decade from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, Aja set out to make a film that would serve as an unrestrained outpouring of horror. The story is simple… at first: A young woman, Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), visits her family at their country home and brings along her friend Marie (Cécile de France). Once they’re settled that night, Alex’s parents are brutally attacked by a maniac truck driver (Philippe Nahon), who proceeds to stalk the two women. When the killer kidnaps Alex in his truck, Marie hides in the back to try and rescue her best friend, but all is not as it seems, and the killer might be someone they both know all too well.
The influence of traditional horror fare is evident throughout. At first, it’s a simple idea executed effectively; but not is all as it initially seems, as we learn as the film progresses and subverts the expectations of audiences well accustomed to slasher films and home invasion thrillers. If you’ve seen the movie then you’ll be aware of the polarizing twist at the end, and while it’s understandably divisive, at least you can admire Aja’s desire to throw caution to the wind and defy convention. High Tension would have worked just as well if he played it safe, but it took a risk – and whether it paid off or not has been the source of much debate since it was introduced 13 years ago.
To this day, High Tension remains one of the essential films of the New Wave of French Extremity movement. Afterwards Aja would go on to direct the remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and be well on his way to becoming one of the finest directors working in modern horror. When you look at the current crop of contemporary genre filmmakers, a few, you could say, have the potential to go on to become bona fide icons. Aja is one of them, and years from now when future generations are exploring his career, High Tension will be discussed as a classic – much like the films of Hooper and Craven that inspired it.