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Murder Slim Review: SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE a.k.a. HIGH TENSION (2003)

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A common problem with world cinema these days - particularly in the horror genre - is that they have no distinctive style. A great example of this is DEAD SNOW, which bears no resemblance to Norwegian cinema... and, sadly, little resemblance to good cinema either. They are simply movies put together to follow established Hollywood formulas and end up being sold on the Tartan Horror DVD series in the UK. As a result, they don't excite much.

Luckily, the French horror SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE is different. It's stylish, scary and sticks in the ol' noggin. You have a heroine you grow to care about along with a villain who scares the hell out of you. It's also better paced than the more renowned MARTYRS, and much more of a coherent film. MARTYRS is broken down into three sections that don't quite tie together, while SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE tackles the slasher genre head-on and makes a great job of it.

It starts with the tomboy Alex staying with her student friend Marie and Marie's parents. There's a weird frisson to these early scenes, where Alex seems to be jealous of Marie's appeal to men. Maiwenn Le Besco is great as Alex, all wide-eyes and gangly awkwardness. Oh, as ever, make sure to watch the subtitled version instead of the dubbed one, to appreciate the acting more. You can see how terrible dubbing is in the trailer below:

Anyway, in the middle of the night, there's a knock on the door and Marie's father answers it. As he opens it, he's slashed across the face by a psycho in a boilersuit. And when Marie's dog comes to save the day, the psycho kills him too. This kicks off a movie with a number of graphic, affecting gore scenes. It doesn't look like they're used any CGI (and, if they have, it's better handled than any other CGI horror I've seen) and the deaths are disturbing. The murder of Marie's mother is the hardest to watch, but the decapitation of the father is hardly fun either. But that's just the way an adult horror should be.

Yet what lifts SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE to the level of a great horror is that it also creates tension beautifully. This is the real template for success, as shown in the best examples of the genre... THE EXORCIST, PSYCHO, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, HALLOWEEN, THE THING and so on. As the parents are killed and Marie is kidnapped, Alex has to frantically hide from the psychopathic killer. It's a twenty minute section of caught breaths, red herrings and genuine suspense... great stuff. And for all the reviews saying SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE is "hideously violent" (UNCUT), it's actually as much a damn good thriller movie as a damn good horror movie.

Alex manages to elude the psycho killer (played by a French comedian in an oh-so-slightly different role) and follows him, trying to save her best friend. The film then becomes increasingly dreamlike, and ends with a plot twist that makes no logical sense. But I'm fine with that. If a movie is great up to that point - and SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE is - then you can forgive it. And the plot twist doesn't lead to any terrible scenes... it actually leads to some great ones. There's a particularly brutal pastiche of the ending of TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and then a creepy-as-hell final sequence.

Alexandre Aja was only 26 when he directed SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE and yet he's managed to generate the feel of the best slasher movies whilst rarely getting too showy. Aja has since moved onto Hollywood, directing the excellent HILLS HAVE EYES remake, the decent MIRRORS remake, and the - well, you've probably seen it - PIRANHA remake. Much as the guy can remake films, SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE shows a director who can really work an audience's emotions through original material. It's hard to affect an audience without pre-established characters, yet SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE does that. It even (say it quietly) almost leaves you hoping for a sequel, because Alex has left such an impression. Like KING OF THE ANTS, it's probably another DVD in the discount bin of your local shop. Hand over the three quid and add it to your collection... it's more than worth it.

Review by Steve Hussy