October 31, 2005

DVD Review: House of Voices

Originally called Saint-Ange, this is a French import that has gone through a retitling for the American audience. Apparently, it did not do well at the box office in it's native land. Seems a shame, too, because I found it to be an entertaining, if flawed psychological horror.

The film opens in an orphanage, a young boy awakens and goes down the hall to the bathroom. On the way, he comes across a young girl who also wishes to go. Together they make their way to the large bathroom. The boy looks for a working faucet, while the girl says that the "others" like to play with them. While on their way back, the boy hears something and goes back, gets up on the edge of a tub, to look in a mirror then falls off, to his death.

Move ahead in time, Anna arrives at the orphanage just as it is being emptied. Apparently all of the children are being moved out. Anna has been hired to help clean up the run down building. She remains their with Helenka, the cook, and Judith, an unstable young woman who has lived their for as long as she can remember.

It is not long before Anna begins to experience things, hearing voices, footsteps in the distance. Anna has a past of her own which may be coming into play, as it is revealed that is trying to hide a pregnancy and has clearly been whipped by a former employer. All of this leads to her fragile state of mind, as she starts to look into the past of the house. It is learned that the house played home to a number of children after World War II, children that had been smuggled from the clutches of the Nazis who had performed experiments on them.

Judith and Helenka are aware of the past. Judith may have been one of those children, while Helenka was working there when they arrived. Neither one is talking. Helenka keeps a vow of silence, and uses drugs to keep Judith comfortably numb. The introduction of Anna brings with it an unknown factor, one which seems desperate to find out the secret of the children. Perhaps, to bring understanding to her own pregnancy.

As more and more is revealed, Anna's sanity creeps ever closer to the edge. Then the climax arrives and we are left with more questions than answers. This is good and bad. Once that climax arrives, there could be a number of ways to looking at it.

Now, I will only give a glimpse into my thoughts, so as not to spoil anything for you. One way of looking at it, and this works for the film as whole, is that her sanity has reached it's breaking point and she has fallen into the abyss while Judith's clearing state of mind is opening her to seeing a different twist on reality. The other is to look at this as a haunted house tale, where the ghosts of children past are reaching out for an adult figure to care for them.

House of Voices is a mixed bag of good and bad. It tries to reach a high plateau of ghostly suspense, but is failed by what is, ultimately, a weak script. The script is the weak link in that not enough is developed. I don't have a problem with having to piece together a plot, I have a problem when there aren't enough pieces to fit together. We get small snips of dialogue about Anna's past, about the kids, but nothing to really define her past, or to give any real insight into what happened there. Why is this mystery a mystery? What is being hidden and from whom? Why did Anna end up at this remote facility? The questions go on.

On the other side, there are some things to really like about it as well. First off, I loved the slow, languid pace that it moves at. It has a very deliberate movement through what plot we get. The cinematography is fantastic. So many shots are absolutely gorgeous to look at. The direction, by Pascal Laugier, is good as well, although points are lost since the director also wrote it, so who is he going to blame the story on?

The acting is very good, despite the lack of exposition and a few bad lines. Virginie Ledoyen is lovely as our star, Anna. She does a good job at trying to ground her in the reality of the unreal situation. Lou Doillon is Judith and brings a nice crazy aura to the unbalanced orphan. Rounding out our main cast is Dorina Lazar is Helenka, who may hold the key to everything, if only the script told us.

On a side note, there is also a role played by Catriona MacColl. She is a veteran of many Lucio Fulci horror films. That is a note to remember, as I have read that this was meant to exist in the same universe as Fulci's The Beyond. How that is, I have no idea, as I cannot see all that many, any actually, similarities between the two.

Video. The movie is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and is anamorphically enhanced. The transfer looks great, the black levels are good and there do not appear to be any artifacts or edge enhancement. The color palette is muted and well represented.

Audio. The soundtrack is English 5.1 Dolby Digital. I am a little confused now, as I am not sure what the original language is. It is a French production, but the actors all appear to speak English, but the deleted scenes and documentary are all in French. So, either this is a good dub job, or it really was shot in English. In any case, it does sound good, and the music is good too.

Extras. We get a couple of extras here.
-Deleted scenes. There are about 21 minutes of excised scenes. They cannot be selected individually, and they don't really add much to the film, so I understand the deletion.
-Documentary: "Saint-Ange: Behind the Mirror." this is a documentary running about 52 minutes. It isn't what I expected, but it is loaded with behind the scenes footage. Interesting to watch what they went through on a number of scenes.

Bottomline. Not the greatest thriller I've scene, but it does create a wonderfully creepy ambiance. It looks great, has nice pacing and good performances. It has a weak script, but the bizarre ending and interesting story nuggets make it worth a chance.

Mildly Recommended.


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