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 and co-productions for Lions Gate Entertainment. "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 later decided to examine the possibility of sending it out dubbed for a mass audience. It was cinematic serendipity."
Traditionally, art house crowds in the U.S. have not only tolerated but demanded subtitles. (A dubbed version of Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" was so poorly received that Miramax Films quickly sent out a subtitled version.) 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 -- routine for American exports but unusual in the U.S.-- was the question.
On the face of it, "High Tension," a $2-million film to be released June 10 on roughly 1,800 screens, 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. ("It's more about behavior and survival," the director said.)
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), 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 ("Furia"), 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 on the phone 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 -- unexpectedly, because during its initial screening at the Cannes Film Festival, no North American distributor picked it up. 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 U.S. 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. Scripts can't simply be translated from one language to another -- words must be added or eliminated to correspond to the lip movement in the footage. The goal: to avoid the stilted, out-of-sync dubbing endemic to martial arts imports, the studio technicians explain.
Not every actor is up to the task, Lions Gate's 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."
Learning by doing
Dressed in a striped sweater and miniskirt, De France ran in place in the darkened studio as the movie was projected on a large screen in front of the reading stand where she was recording.
"Please, you must call the police," she intoned, panting hysterically. Buchholz told her to enunciate more, distinguishing between "police" and "please."
It was nearing the end of the 12-hour day, and the actress asked for a break ("My mind is too full"). Three teams worked around the clock for three days to make the test screening deadline.