People may find themselves unsettled by High Tension, and not only because of the violence in Alexandre Aja's ode to 1970s horror films such as Maniac! and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Part subtitled, part dubbed, the movie is that rare hybrid: an experiment in how to make a French-language film accessible to a mass American audience.
Lions Gate Films, the distributor, flip-flopped several times before deciding how to release the film. Originally, it conceived of a limited subtitled release - until a crudely dubbed version created for the international market was mistakenly sent to a research screening last year.
"We were appalled," said Peter Block, president of acquisitions for Lions Gate. "We were going to kill the guy at the lab. In the focus sessions afterward, however, we realized that the audience was loving the movie. We decided to examine sending it out dubbed for a mass audience. It was cinematic serendipity."
Traditionally, art house crowds in the United States have not only tolerated but demanded subtitles. But High Tension's 17- to 24-year-old target demographic doesn't go to the theaters to read, reasoned Lions Gate executives. Whether they'd buy into the dubbing was the question.
On the face of it, High Tension, a $2 million film that opened Friday in Baltimore and on roughly 1,800 screens nationwide, is perfect for testing the waters.
The story of two friends fighting off a killer (Philippe Nahon) in the French countryside, it has minimal dialogue after the opening segment - perhaps only 10 minutes in all.
The action is told from the vantage point of Marie (Cecile De France), who, having escaped from the man's clutches, is trying to save Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco), whom the killer has kidnapped. Some of the more violent scenes have been trimmed - though not removed - to sidestep the commercially disastrous NC-17 rating, which excludes viewers 17 and younger.
Aja, who also co-wrote the movie, supported the decision to dub the film, which he figured would broaden its appeal.
"The American people don't like subtitles," he said from Paris. "The American people don't like dubbing. That's why you see remakes like The Ring and The Grudge, which are also a way of protecting your film industry. It's hard to release a movie in the U.S. - especially a scary movie. Much easier to have a hit with a period film or an intimate drama."
Lions Gate discovered Aja's film, executive produced by Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival, where it set off a bidding war.
Taken by the performances and camerawork, Lions Gate's Block, and its acquisition executives Jason Constantine and Eda Kowan, edged out the competition. The studio paid a mid-six-figure sum to acquire the film and an equal amount to dub it.
Last November, the lines were dubbed by American actors - as well as De France, one of France's leading actresses, who starred in last year's remake of Around the World in 80 Days. To fine-tune the process, she flew to the United States this year for a grueling session overseen by dubbing coordinator Bob Buchholz.
It's a tedious process, requiring take after take, one sentence at a time. Words must be added or eliminated to correspond to the lip movement in the footage.
Not every actor is up to the task, Constantine points out.
"There are two aspects, artistic and technical," he said. "To maintain the illusion, the actor has to be able to get into character, re-creating a specific moment years later on a soundstage. It's crucial that the dubbing doesn't detract from the realism of the movie."
The entire dubbing process took six months. But it didn't deliver the hoped-for response.
According to John Hegeman, president of worldwide marketing for Lions Gate Entertainment, an audience attending a March research screening said the dubbing siphoned off the terror.
There was also confusion about the setting of the film. In contrast to the original, which took place in France, the dubbed version was set in an unspecified locale in which all the characters - with the exception of De France - spoke English. How, then, to explain the French police uniforms and road signs?
"We sat around wondering what to do," Hegeman said. "Going [back to the original idea of opening] small with an NC-17 movie would have been an admission that our experiment had failed. After three months of deliberation, we opted to go with the hybrid."
The current version establishes early on that the setting is France.
The beginning of the film is almost all dubbed to set up the story without subtitles. The locals in the ensuing footage - from the gas station attendant to the authorities - speak in subtitled French, while Marie is bilingual. Talking to Americans, she's dubbed into English. Speaking to Frenchmen and herself, she speaks in her native French.
Though the hybrid version has not been tested, the film has been screened for Webmasters on 15 to 20 sites, including bloody-disgusting.com and aintitcoolnews.com.
"It's slightly [OK, maybe VERY] distracting in the first 20-30 minutes," one slasher fan wrote on the bloody-disgusting.com Web site. But once the action kicks in, "you never look back and don't even notice."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.