Foreign or Domestic – Haute Tension Vs. Session 9

The horror genre has surely had its ups and downs over the past few decades going from bloody slasher flicks to mindless killing rampages to well thought out serial killings to mysterious phenomenon. Needless to say, but some have been great while others have been just downright putrid. To me there are only two types of horror films worth making: the slashers with the icons such as Freddy, Michael, and Jason, or the thought-provoking films with a great twist at the end that make you sit up in your chair and shout, “No way!”

Over time my liking to the mysteries is what has drawn me to my choices for our little feature here. Yes the slashers are fantastic, but knowing who the killers are from moment one takes a bit away from the excitement and then all that’s left are the scares. I love to actually wonder throughout an entire film what exactly is going on, only to have it all pulled together in the final scene. Hence is the reason I present to you two films which signify the entire meaning of the “shock twist.” Ladies and gentlemen, may I present:

Foreign Vs. Domestic

**Be Warned! There are spoilers ahead for both films!**

Haute Tension

Director: Alexandre Aja

Notable Cast Members: Cécile De France (Marie), Maïwenn Le Besco (Alexia), Philippe Nahon (La tueur)

Synopsis: Marie and Alexia are off of school for vacation so they decide to go to the countryside and stay a few days with Alexia’s parents. The girls are young, pretty, experimental, and just want to have a good time. Marie is a bit more forward then Alexia, but she’s learning to loosen up like her friend. Everything is going perfectly and is very relaxing for them; which is just what they needed after the stress of school.

One night though some noises are heard downstairs and Marie witnesses Alexia’s entire family, including their dog, beaten and brutally murdered. The stranger then kidnaps Alexia and takes off with her in the back of his van. Marie knows that she can’t just sit by and must do everything to rescue her friend from the stranger, but just who exactly is the odd man?

Session 9

Director: Brad Anderson

Notable Cast Members: Peter Mullan (Gordon), David Caruso (Phil), Josh Lucas (Hank), Brandon Sexton III (Jeff), Stephen Gevedon (Mike)

Synopsis: Five men take a job stripping drywall and insulation at an abandoned mental hospital and are trying to work quick so they can get a huge bonus. The owner of the operation Gordon is trying to make sure his team stays focused on their work and don’t do anything stupid that could jeopardize this job or future business.

As the days go on though, strange things begin happening around the hospital. Jeff, Gordon’s nephew, is just doing what he’s told and trying not to screw up. Mike finds some old tapes from psychiatric sessions and is determined to find out what happened to a unique former patient. Hank disappears without a trace, but everyone figures he flaked out like he normally does. Phil seems to want to take control and run the operation because he just doesn’t feel his old friend Gordon is up to the task anymore. And Gordon, well he’s having tons of family problems that are making it hard to concentrate on work. But there’s something stronger at work something stranger and more serious then any of their little squabbles and the secret lies within the hospital.

Head To Head Comparison

Acting

The acting in a psychological horror film really needs to be spot on in order for the twist at the end to make any sort of sense and been seen as valid. Even if the story itself is shotty, the acting can still be done well enough in order to create intrigue. Session 9 delivers fantastic performances from all involved, but especially Peter Mullan and Josh Lucas. Lucas plays the part of the “asshole” so well that you literally start to hate him, but he’s the one that makes you think nothing is wrong. He is so arrogant and cocky that he’ll do anything to get rich even if it means risking his life and that keeps you thinking that nothing will happen before it surprises you. Mullan goes through every emotion possible in the film and does it fantastically. Joy, anger, sadness, remorse, confusion he goes through them all and never once would you think that anything he is doing is any more then the truth and in total sanity.

Haute Tension delivers some excellent acting as well, but there isn’t much to look for besides the acting of De France. After the first half an hour, the only person you are privy to watching is her. Sure Le Besco does a good job of being frightened, but she’s tied up in the back of a van so it isn’t like she had much to do. De France plays the strong-willed revengeful woman so well that it seems kind of too good. Do you really believe a young college student who was scared shitless two hours ago is now going to follow and stand up to a man who brutally murdered three people? I don’t think so. While both films delivered great showings from all involved, Session 9 just delivered more of them.

Story

In a sense of building to an exciting twist, not much story is needed except for to understand who the characters are and what they are doing there. Haute Tension let’s us know that the girls are on break from school and are simply going to enjoy the time off at Alexia’s parents’ house and that’s it. From there a freak shows up and decides to start killing everyone and for some reason kidnaps Alexia. Marie plays hero and ends up chasing herself. There’s no evidence that she was a loony from the beginning, but it shows it big time in the end.

Session 9 doesn’t give much of a backstory at all, but we are given some history on a few characters. Hank has stolen Phil’s girl Amy. Mike should have been a lawyer but never took the bar exam. Jeff is Gordon’s nephew and kind of a screw-up. Gordon is having problems at home with his wife Wendy and it’s evident that he regrets what happened. Finally there is the history of the hospital and the famed patient Mary and all her different personalities. The guys have no connection to the hospital except that they are working there but a mental connection between Mary and Gordon brings them together over the course of two weeks bringing his anger to the forefront. And when all is said and done, the entire story goes back a lot further then just the beginning of the actual film. A very deep and more intricate story puts Session 9 ahead by a lot as it takes its second in two tries.

Originality

Both films are extremely similar in having the story lead you in one direction to bring you to the dramatic twist at the end. And both twists involve one of the main characters in the story that you really never see coming. Session 9 was released in 2001 and Haute Tension was released in 2003 but not until 2005 here in the States. Neither has much originality since almost every single horror film since the birth of Scream back in 1996 has had a big twist to bring the climax to its highest point. As said earlier, the “twist” has taken the place of the “slasher” in the world of horror.

The thing that takes one film higher then the other in this situation is how deep the story is. While Haute Tension does make you sit up and go, “It was her???” at the end of it; it’s still not something that made you think and go back. All you do is realize Marie was a nutcase and had a multiple personality disorder. Session 9 connects all the guys together in some way or another and Gordon ends up going crazy due to not only his anger but also the presence of former hospital patient Mary. To not only have him succumb to anger, but to have it make his mind so weak that the multiple personalities of a woman from over forty years ago are able to control it well, that’s simply brilliant. Session 9 takes another one.

Soundtrack/Scoring

Music is an absolute must in setting the mood for a horror film. Haute Tension does a good job of keeping the story moving through use of it’s score, but it doesn’t really kick in until the second half of the film. And the music doesn’t go for more of a mood setting so much as it tries to keep up with what is happening on screen. The action scenes are accompanied by rather fast-sounding music and harder guitar riffs. Even the multiple murder scene is heard in a hard and violent tone. The music choices take the film out of it’s element of being psychological and taking it to a slasher flick.

Session 9‘s soundtrack is also quite limited with not many songs listed at all. But the music that is there does the job wonderfully. The background score is mostly slow piano keys being slowly pressed from time to time. That is really all there is and it makes every scene you hear it in that much creepier. If it wasn’t for the eeriness of the piano being played, then you wouldn’t get nearly as freaked out then as if to hear a song with lyrics blaring. Its beginning to turn into a landslide as Session 9 wins again.

Genre Moment

These films are so similar twist-wise that it’s kind of difficult to determine which one actually had the better genre moment for horror films, but after some in depth thinking I found one. Session 9‘s moment that brings it to the forefront actually isn’t the twist but a conversation between all the guys at lunch one day. Jeff is reading one of the books he found in the hospital and of course laughing it all off and being a total retard. Mike, being a former law student and also very curious about Mary’s case, takes the things he hears a bit more seriously. They discuss the insanity plea and then Mike grabs Jeff in a chinlock and proceeds to discuss the “ice pick method.” A way of jabbing a sharp object between the eye and where it meets the skin to totally immobilize the victim and only give them a black eye if done quickly. A creepy conversation that comes back into play for the final scenes.

Haute Tension actually has two moments though that signify its place in horror history. The horrifying killing scene where Alexia’s whole family is brutally murdered is sadistic and marks the pace for the entire film. It is rough, bloody, and just oddly real-feeling even though we barely got to know her parents and brother before they died. Then comes the ending when there is the confrontation between Marie and the murderer only to find out that it was her all along. She did the killings, the kidnapping, and found out she was chasing her own self the entire evening. It was just quite shocking and a nice touch to what seemed like a normal “one hero goes after the murderer” generic horror film. The beating is over and Haute Tension finally grabs one.

Long Term Effect

I’m not quite sure how fair it can be to determine which film will have the most long term effect. Session 9 showed in a mere thirty theatres and made less then $400,000, but in comparison Haute Tension was in over 1,300 theatres and only grossed a little over $6 million. I saw the latter in theatres and ended up seeing Session 9 on DVD just about two years ago for the first time.

Thing is, even with that knowledge, it’s still a matter of personal opinion and not where the film was viewed. Session 9 is a film that keeps quiet and doesn’t really get wild or loud or jump out of its eerie character. Haute Tension shows its extremely violent side while still keeping the psychological aspect there when all is over with. The murder of Alexia’s family surely will stay in the mind of many for a long time to come. And the twist that it was Marie all along is by far the main thing anyone remembers if you talk about the film with them. Even though I honestly feel as if Session 9 should have the greatest long term effect, it never will get its due. Those two great moments in Haute Tension will definitely be copied and seen again and again in many films to come. The foreign film takes its second in a row.

Entertainment Value

Haute Tension and Session 9 are both great films and are extremely enjoyable. But I’m going to let you know that the way the audio was presented in Haute Tension turned me off a great amount. There were moments of people speaking German with subtitles. Then there were times of badly dubbed English over their German speaking mouths. And then there were times it’d go back to German but with no subtitles. A big turn off to a film that is a good and enjoyable psychological thriller, but sometimes forgets its goal and jumps to being a slasher.

Session 9 really is just the better film all around. The backstory of Mary combined with the history the men have with each other makes for more then just a bunch of guys working in a haunted building. Every single guy person in the film has their own little story that they are caught up in and end up being involved in the bigger picture. There is even a bit of confusion around the middle of the film that has you thinking “huh?” to yourself on more then one occasion. But when that big moment of truth comes at the end; everything makes sense and it just pulls together in such a cool and heart-wrenching way. Session 9 is one of those films that I could watch repeatedly and always be amazed at how well it was all incorporated into a very enjoyable 100 minutes.

The Winner: Session 9

In what turned out to be a lot more of a laugher then the close race I expected it to be when I first chose these two films, Session 9 won handily by beating out Haute Tension 5 2. These two films are very similar in fashion as there is some blood, there is some gore, there’s some tension, and they are both good horror films. But when it comes to the psychological horror film, you can’t jump over into the slasher flick halfway through or it just doesn’t work.

The twist that Haute Tension went for proves that they wanted the audience to enjoy the fast-paced action, but then to really put their minds to it at the end and think about everything. And once the unveiling of Marie as the killer is revealed; you’re really going to either think back in great detail or watch the film again to try and catch little signs. Just like I’m sure everyone did with The Sixth Sense. But with M. Night Shyamalan’s classic, never once did he try to make his film into a wild chase spree and kill fest.

Session 9 delivers the tension from moment one by introducing us to Mary and what she meant to the hospital she inhabited so long ago. There are no flashbacks or cut scenes of the things she did or the psychiatric sessions she partook in. We hear the sessions through a series of recordings but we also see Mike taking notes and trying to figure out what happened with her case. Gordon’s dilemmas at home start to slowly unfold and we find out more and more what he did. And all this time the three stories of Gordon’s problematic home life, the five guys and the job they are working on, and Mary’s multiple personalities all mesh together perfectly. The film is never rushed and sets the mood the whole time for the thing that pulls everything together the final twist that you never see coming.