Last year saw the horror genre reverse into the ’70s, park in a rural wasteland and wait for those obligatory rednecks to come a-sniffing – with so-so results. Switchblade Romance is a step in the right direction in every sense, offering a couple of twists on established themes en route to out-motoring the likes of Wrong Turn, Cabin Fever and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. The opening 45 minutes plays like the killings of In Cold Blood filtered through a slasher sensibility and given a grimy lick of colour. Mainly red. It’s an extended suspense sequence that’s borderline bravura, as a trucker (Philippe Nahon, the butcher in Gaspar Noé’s Seul Contre Tous) invades Alex’s homestead to pace unhurriedly from room to room dispensing death. Marie (De France), meanwhile, exits the guest room in search of a phone, eyes bulging as she attempts to evade the stalking killer.
One thing’s for certain: French helmer Alexandre Aja knows how to wring sweat from celluloid. First off, he grounds everything in reality, assembling naturalistic performances, authentic dialogue and grubby visuals to make you believe. Then he uses the soundtrack to play a thrash-metal solo on your strung-out nerves, dislodging viewers’ fillings with scratchy static and grumbling bass. But, most of all, he’s an expert at hosing blood across walls, the dark stuff regularly shooting arrows to suddenly puncture the ballooning tension.
Good job Aja knows how to cut together a suspense sequence, too. In lesser hands, the stacking up of horror-movie clichés – a night stroll in a field; the killer seeking Marie, one cubicle at a time, in a public toilet; corpses lurching back to life – would have been tiring, even laughable. Here we remember why they became clichés in the first place: because, done right, they’re bloody scary.
Events in the final reel are more problematic, though, a sleight-of-hand flourish proving derivative and, truth be told, wholly unnecessary. It’s credit to the previous 80 minutes that the climax, however hollow, does little to tarnish this ferocious frightener.