Switchblade Romance Review

The retro-horror film has been one of the best and worst ideas in recent genre history. On the one hand, it was a great notion to go back to basics and try and recapture some of the elemental terror which is found in classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance. On the other, it’s a shame that the finished products have been so mediocre, directed with an eye for a quick scare but no real vision or feeling for place and character. Consequently, last year’s batch of Hollywood backwoods movies that tried the trick - Wrong Turn, Cabin Fever and the weirdly off-key remake of Texas Chainsaw - tend to have faded fast from the memory. What most of them failed to notice about the originals was that for every ‘jump’ moment, there is a lengthy period during which an atmosphere is created to ensure that the shock, when it comes, is more than just a reflex followed by a giggle. These great horror movies from the 1970s are more concerned with unnerving and thoroughly disorientating the audience so that they begin to question their assumptions about the outside world. The ‘throwbacks’ of the past year or two have had little else on their minds than giving the audience a few brief shakes. Quick gratification, in other words, over genuine stimulation. Of course, sometimes a quick fuck is just what you need, but sometimes you need a really good going-over from someone what knows exactly what they’re doing.

Haute Tension, known over here as Switchblade Romance, is part of this backwards-looking trend in the horror film, but it’s several cuts above its recent American cousins both in intention and achievement. Certainly, there are a number of beautifully timed jolts, along with enough bloody effluence to fill a couple of abattoirs. Fans of blood and gore will have little to complain about and connoisseurs of the inventive demise will be elated to learn that the film features, among other delights, a hitherto unsuspected method of decapitation. But it’s as a study of quite terrifyingly intense emotional need that the film really delivers the horror that it promises and the ending, which has been much debated and usually dismissed as unsatisfyingly gimmicky, could be seen as an entirely logical development of this side of the film.

The story is, in the classic manner, incredibly simple. Alex (Maiwenn), a pretty and flirtatious young woman has invited her reserved, virginal and sexually confused friend Marie (De France), to her family home for a holiday. Arriving at the house, set in the middle of the French countryside, the two girls quickly settle in. But things are not as tranquil as they seem. In a truck, parked a short distance from the house, a man is receiving fellatio from what turns out to be a severed head, which he then throws out of the window before driving off. Unfortunately, he returns later that night and Marie embarks on a desperate bid to save her friend's life before the killer gets one, or both, of them.

Some spoilers are contained within the following paragraphs. If you wish your first viewing of the film to be unspoiled, please skip down to my comments about the disc.

I’m going to be fairly brief in this review because Switchblade Romance is a film which works best when you don’t quite know what to expect. I approached it with some trepidation owing to my views on the spate of recent ‘backwoods’ horror movies but I quickly discovered that I had no need to worry. Alexandre Aja’s direction is astute and stylish. The film is constructed in a heavily stylised way with lots of whip-pans, fast cuts and sinister tracking shots. Although there are not too many direct filmic references, the shadow of many classic horror movies hangs over Switchblade Romance and a slight weakness is that there isn’t a great deal of originality of conception or direction in some of the lengthier suspense set-pieces. They’re very well carried off by Aja but it’s only the intensity of his pacing and the extremity of the violence that keeps you from thinking you’ve seen it all before. Mention should, however, be made of the use of sound which is often quite inspired. Aja knows how to use sound to unsettle his audience and, in this regard, he’s obviously learned a thing or two from Hitchcock and Argento.

The performances of the three principles are quite superb. Cecile De France has a nightmarishly difficult job in trying to make the character of Marie credible, but she achieves it by immediately indicating that, for Marie, the exterior world is at several removes from her consciousness. Marie is required, for the sake of the plot, to live in a kind of fantasy world where she can be the lover and protector of Alex and continually deny herself knowledge of the horrible reality of her situation. De France convinces us of both Marie’s compulsive obsession for love and acceptance and of her poignant desperation when she finds that neither can come her way. Her lesbianism is indicated early on but she never becomes a cliche ‘dyke’, even when her feelings towards Marie become embarrassingly obvious. If Maiwenn gets less of our sympathy, for much of the film, then that’s because Alex isn’t so roundly painted a character and the film requires her, understandably, to be a hysterical wreck for much of the running time. As the killer, Philippe Nahon is a memorable creation; first terrifyingly silent and then, suddenly, vivid, venal and as memorably lascivious as M.Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple. The complete refusal of the film to explain his motives is particularly effective.

Much has been made of the narrative twist which hits the viewer about twenty minutes before the end. I really don’t want to give this away for two reasons. Firstly, if you watch the film knowing what happens, you won’t find it quite as scary as you would otherwise. Secondly, the twist does a very rare thing – it strengthens the emotional pull of the film and what begins as a horrifying revelation becomes genuinely affecting. The clues which make the twist work are carefully planted throughout the film, making a second viewing a very different experience to the first. But whereas in, say, No Way Out, the twist is simply there to give the audience a last minute shock, the turn of events in Switchblade Romance is significant in terms of the characters and the way they behave. The result is a film which begins as a very well made slasher movie and ends as a horribly painful and oddly credible love story. The pain that people go through when suffering from unrequited and, worse, never to be requited love has rarely been etched in quite such blunt (metaphorical) terms as it is here – and I think it works brilliantly.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t also work as a damn good slasher movie. One of the things which makes a classic slasher like William Lustig’s Maniac work is its complete lack of sentimentality. Here, all bets really are off and if its not the cute doggy getting the chop then its a (rather obnoxious) little child. The scene where the ‘visitor’ first arrives at the house is superbly achieved because, for the space of twenty minutes, we realise that there is literally nothing he won’t do for the sake of whatever appalling kicks he requires. I’d compare it to the torture and chase sequences in Last House On The Left for sheer, unrelenting agony, both for characters and audience, and the lack of emotion that the killer demonstrates here is particularly disturbing. If he seemed to be expressing some emotional response, even pleasure, it might somehow be less upsetting. As it is, his behaviour is almost clinical. The great Gianetto De Rossi’s special effects are a thing of wonder throughout these sequences – the decapitation deserves a standing ovation – and the gradual deterioration of Marie’s body into a mass of nicks and cuts is skilfully done.

If you love serious horror movies and you’ve been as dispirited as I have by the invasion of the postmodern scare flick over the past ten years, then you will probably be highly gratified by Switchblade Romance. Aja clearly knows his horror movies and while there are certainly nods to the classics – a climactic use of a huge power tool is like a love letter to Tobe Hooper – he doesn’t use his knowledge in a cutesy, ironic manner. It’s also, oddly enough, one of the most convincing and intense love stories I’ve seen for many years I loved this movie and have no hesitation in recommending – and gorehounds will be in a blood-soaked heaven of their very own.

The Disc

Optimum’s release of Switchblade Romance is a very impressive DVD. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, it offers generally good image quality. Much of the film is very dark and this presents a number of challenges for the transfer. These problems are partially surmounted and we get a very sharp, well defined image with very rich colours and plenty of detail. The level of grain varies throughout the film but is generally filmlike and not excessive. Most importantly, the blacks are deep and true and the low-lighting is nicely reproduced. However, there is a certain amount of artifacting visible in places, probably exaggerated by the dark look of the film. This isn’t serious enough to spoil the good points of the image but it doesn’t look quite as good as the screen captures I’ve seen of the R2 DVD from EuropaCorp. However, a DVD Beaver comparison suggests that the Optimum offers a slightly better picture. There is also a certain amount of edge enhancement in places and a couple of instances of aliasing.

The soundtracks, however, are dead-on target and a pleasure to listen to. This is a film which uses sound in a very careful, intelligent manner and both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are very impressive and eventful. The 5.1 mix is often very exciting. The sense of something ominous about to happen is sometimes overpowering. Both tracks, thankfully, are in the original French and not the version dubbed, horribly, in English.

The extras aren’t extensive but they are of a high quality. The audio commentary, featuring Cecile De France and Alexandre Aja with critic Jamie Graham, is fascinating and entertaining while also being well disciplined. There’s little rambling and plenty of insightful comments. Graham is a bit gushing in places but he does manage to keep the discussion firmly on track. A ‘making-of’ featurette is also included, lasting about 25 minutes and consisting largely of some behind-the-scenes footage and lengthy interview snippets with Aja and the co-writer Gregory Levasseur. This latter feature is in French with English subtitles.

The remainder of the extras are also satisfying, if briefer. We get subtitled interviews with the three principle cast members, These are quite revealing, with Nahon particularly interesting in his observations about playing a total bastard. The longest interview is with Cecile De France which comes in at 20 minutes. There’s a nice little 7 minute feature about Giannetto de Rossi’s special effects which contains a good interview and plenty of hands-on practical information. Finally, we get two trailers – French and English – and previews for four other Optimum releases - Dead Mans Shoes, Shaolin Soccer, Memories of Murder, Bon Voyage.

The special features contain spoilers so don’t watch them until you’ve seen the film

Divided into 24 chapter stops, the film is fully subtitled in English. The commentary isn’t subtitled but the special features are, since they are mostly in French.

Switchblade Romance - a title I prefer to the American literal translation High Tension - is a breath of fresh air, a horror film which takes no prisoners, doesn’t insult the intelligence and wallows in delicious bad taste. Optimum’s transfer isn’t quite as good as it could have been - although there doesn't seem to be much in it between this release and the French R2 - the quality of the rest of the disc is top-notch.

Switchblade Romance is released in the UK on 31st January, just in time for Valentine's Day.

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