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In 'Tension,' translating horror was a tricky business

Ask anyone prone to squirming in a movie theater: The nicest thing about a truly scary horror film is often the ability to look away.

But in every rule of thumb lies a notable exception. ''High Tension," a horror movie that opens Friday, fixes viewer attention on the screen at crucial moments -- as a matter of necessity.

During the scary parts, the movie, a French production made in French by French director Alexandre Aja and a mostly French cast, relies on subtitles for the English translation.

But lest the squeamish save their money for domestic fare, note that it isn't possible to read all of ''High Tension," a fine example of dread meets gore, in lettering across the bottom of the screen. Indeed, the first eight minutes -- which include a large chunk of dialogue in a largely dialogue-free film -- are dubbed in English. The remainder represents a novel hybrid: some parts dubbed, others subtitled.

In other words, Lions Gate Entertainment, the movie's US distributor, decided to resolve the perennial ''dub or sub" dilemma in favor of, well, both. The effect is almost sure to produce intrigue and confusion. Lions Gate hopes it will produce one more thing: solid box-office returns.

Lions Gate has lately been a leader in the horror genre, bringing to US screens such knuckle-munching fare as ''Saw," ''Cabin Fever," and ''Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses." Acquisitions executives Peter Block and Jason Constantine -- horror fans themselves -- first saw ''High Tension" at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. They were immediately interested in the movie and its (then) 25-year-old director, and pulled out the corporate checkbook.

In ''High Tension," two college-age girls, Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maïwenn), travel to the French countryside to visit Alex's family. There, in the pitch of the night, they encounter a serial killer who massacres the rest of the family and then comes after them. The movie is told in flashback from the point of view of a bedridden, hospital-bound Marie. The plot follows classic lines befitting conscious homage to 1970s and 1980s horror masters such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven, William Lustig, Stephen King. It's not a slasher flick, insists Aja, speaking by telephone from France, but something more serious and real -- like a survivor's how-to guide. It's about finding solutions to problems, he adds, somewhat mysteriously.

He could have been talking about the marketing dilemma faced by Lions Gate following the decision to release a French horror film in the United States. To Block and his colleagues, ''High Tension" was a genuinely scary movie that could appeal to a broad commercial audience. But it was in a foreign language. To subtitle the movie would almost surely confine it to the art-house circuit -- akin to murdering any mass potential.

There was another hurdle. The graphic violence of the original French version meant an NC-17 rating.

''We were faced with a scary, subtitled NC-17 movie," says John Hegeman, Lions Gate president of worldwide marketing, with a laugh. ''The feeling was we could make this a cult hit, or we could work in minor alterations."

For the US market, the change started with the title. While it was released in the United Kingdom as ''Switchblade Romance," Lions Gate opted for a straight translation of the French title, ''Haute Tension," into English. The poster received a sort of reverse adaptation. One of the French versions could be described as almost American: It featured a baseball-capped rustic, his face dark, holding a bloody straight razor. In its place, the US poster gives us a knockout sepia-toned shot of lead actress Cecile de France brandishing a two-by-four wrapped with barbed wire.

The film itself was trimmed to achieve an R rating, in total losing what Hegeman estimates to be less than a minute of footage. The next step was to dub the film. To that end, Lions Gate hired American actors with the exception of one role: the lead character, Marie. For that, Lions Gate brought back de France to record French-inflected English over her own French lines.

This created dilemma number three.

''We found out when the entire movie was dubbed it loses the impact; it takes you one step away from being involved in the scariness," says Hegeman. ''With a horror movie, you have to really identify with the main characters; you have to feel their terror."

Also, he adds, ''We wanted the horrific elements to be as true to the director's vision as possible."

What's more, the distributors needed to translate more than just the language. The backdrop is French, as are license plates, the police uniforms, and other details that wouldn't be familiar to an American audience. As Aja put it, ''When you dub the movie and see France in the background, it's comical."

Humorous or not, subtitles would deliver them straight back to square one -- art-house obscurity.

''Who wants to read? You're watching a movie! It's that simple," reasons Hegeman. ''If you want to be as involved in the movie as possible, you're one step removed if you're reading."

If he appears to have contradicted himself, therein lies a fourth issue. It's distancing to transmit dialogue through the written word. It's also distancing to remove spoken word, throwing lips desperately out of synch with an artificial new voice. It's a no-win situation.

In the end, a solution appeared as if from a bucket of blood rigged above a stage. The film would be subtitled and dubbed, and it would all be explained through a simple turn of plot. Marie would remain French, and Alex and her family would be Americans who had a country home in France. So Marie would speak in dubbed English to Alex and her family, and in French everywhere else. Alex and her family would speak in dubbed English with American accents. And everyone else, including the killer -- a Frenchman -- would speak in French.

If it sounds confusing, use this as a primer. It's actually easier to grasp on paper than on-screen, particularly if one fails to catch the fleeting explanation -- added post facto -- for why Alex's family doesn't speak French. At a preview screening, a viewer was overheard to say, ''The subtitles seemed kind of random." Another cluster of viewers stood around discussing whether there might have been method to the madness. So knowing the premise provides a nice headstart.

That the scary parts are mostly in French even begins to make sense. Around the midpoint of the film, Marie makes a panicked call to the police. She tells them about the killer's atrocities, and the kidnapping of her friend. Her appeal is in French. It's rapid and hair-raisingly shrill, and punctuated by subtitles that stream like a gash wound across the bottom of the screen. The scene raises the kind of terror that even the actress herself might not have been able to duplicate had it been in English.

De France, a novice to the horror genre, sports her French accent gamely during the dubbed portion -- and thereby foreshadows the action in a way that would be a spoiler to reveal, except to quote Aja when he says that she's a stranger in the house and that she's not comfortable with the other people. Also, Aja speaks of a play on national attitudes toward violence, which likewise cannot be spelled out before one has seen the film.

As for compelling viewers to watch the screen during the scary parts, Aja protests his innocence. ''That's something I didn't even think about," the director says with undisguised glee. There's a lot for him to be gleeful about -- he professes unqualified approval for the American version of ''High Tension," and it's launched the young director into a personal dream. Next up, Fox Searchlight's remake of Wes Craven's 1977 movie ''The Hills Have Eyes," with Craven himself signed on to produce.

But back to voice-overs. ''It's a difficult exercise, of course," de France says by telephone from New York City, adding that as hard as it was to pretend to confront evil on the set, it was even harder to do it in a cold voice-over studio and a foreign language. De France herself used to go out of her way to watch the rare subtitled film that made it to her small town in Belgium.

This launches a familiar debate. Subtitles might direct one's attention to the screen, but mostly to its bottom edge. Dubbing, the more expensive method, is said to rob a movie of expression, culture, tone, flavor, and the richness and accessibility of a second language. After all, language is a lot like horror -- variable, transporting, capable of being infinitely spun.

And often best experienced with eyes firmly shut.

Jean Tang can be reached at jeandelinstang@yahoo.com.

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