Some 15 years ago, Alexandre Aja put himself on the map. Switchblade Romance [Haute Tension] was the right film at the right time, one of the defining features that would kick off the gruesome horror rage that dominated 00s cinema. Most of those films have long since retreated into obscurity, but quality doesn't let itself be dictated by hypes or flavors of the day, so I figured it was time to give Aja's breakthrough hit another spin. The result was pleasing enough, if that's a term you deem fit for a film like this of course.
Switchblade Romance wasn't Aja's first film, but his debut feature (Furia) never made a splash and even to this day remains incredible difficult to track down. It also came a little too early, with the New French Extremity movement (Gaspar Noé, Philippe Grandrieux, Bruno Dumont, ...) still very much grounded in the arthouse scene. Switchblade Romance on the other hand came at a time when things were slowly tilting more towards genre-based horror fare. It was the perfect film to complete this transition, with Aja being enough of a director to push the boundaries while also providing the necessary horror chops.
Aja makes very little effort to hide his influences. While there is a little extra padding and some elements that modernize the film, Switchblade Romance is a pretty straight-forward upgrade of the 80s slasher films, with a killer on the loose and a young girl fleeing her seemingly unstoppable assailant. The film moves from set piece to set piece and kills of some secondary characters before starting what is the final face-off between the two main characters. If you can't bear horror clichés, this is clearly not a film for you.
The story revolves around Marie, a pretty generic 20-something girl who embarks on a study trip with Alexia, her best friend. They drive off into the nothing to go and stay with Alexia's parents, who own some land and a farm in a remote village. The reception there is friendly, but late at night a rickety van stops in front of their house and a shady figure emerges. When Alexia's dad answers the door he's struck down right away. Luckily Marie is still awake, though remaining out of the killer's reach is going to be quite a challenge.
Switchblade Romance is one of the early 2000 horror films that helped establish that typical dark, dirty and decayed look that would be copied ad infinitum in the years to follow. It never looks cheap or random though. Strong camera work, good use of color and lighting, well edited, Haute Tension is a horror film that looked remarkably better than most horror films released around that time. The visuals were a crucial element that elevated the atmosphere and added an entirely new level of creep and dread.
The soundtrack too is a trendsetter. The opening of the film, with its creepy tune and grizzly beats of static and distortion, is a textbook example of how music and editing can be combined to instantly set the mood for a film. The rest of the soundtrack is also pretty effective, staying in that same niche where sweet tunes and dark, crunchy soundscapes meet. It's not too surprising then that Aja also added a Muse tune (New Born), a fitting though not quite necessary addition.
Cécile de France and Maïwenn do a good job as the girls who are hunted down, but a film like this relies heavily on its killer and that's where Philippe Nahon comes into play. Nahon was quoted before that he wasn't planning on doing any more vile and degenerate characters, luckily Aja was able to change his mind. Nahon's character (who remains nameless) is one of the best, creepiest and most evil killers to have graced any horror film. While he has incredibly little to play with (he doesn't even have a mask), his presence is downright intimidating.
One of the most divisive elements of the film is no doubt the ending. The twist is probably a little unnecessary and might cause some head-scratching, but it's not the buzzkill that some people made it out to be, nor does it introduce any glaring plotholes as some others have stated. The idea is effective enough, the exeuction is fine and while it doesn't necessarily make consecutive viewings more interesting, it's really a quite unimportant bit of the film that somehow got an unrational amount of attention.
Switchblade Romance is a very basic horror film, but executed to perfection. The presentation is flawless, the killer is grotesque and the finale is brutal. It's a superb genre film that helped to define 00s horror and showed the rest of Europe that horror/genre films were worth pursuing. It also kickstarted Aja's career, though he never quite reached the same heights again. Watch it if you love horror cinema, ignore it if you can't stand the genre tropes and clichés.