House of Voices (2004)
Starring Viginie Ledoyen, Lou Doillon, Catriona MacColl <!-- zoom:/img/Reviews/ -->
Directed by Pascal Laugier
Released by Rogue Pictures
Those who look for fresh voices in horror are, more often than not, disappointed in American cinema. Films that go for more flash than substance leave a bitter taste, leading many to look outside the country for their horror fix. Those looking for a spooky ghost story might be rewarded to pick up a copy of France's Saint Ange under its American-release name, House of Voices.
Anna Jurin (Ledoyen) stars as a young woman who hires on at an old orphanage in the French Alps. Her job is to clean the place in time for the next batch of children to arrive. During her first day, she discovers that only one orphan remains, an older and mentally unstable girl named Judith (Doillon). She begins to notice strange goings-on in the house, with phantom footsteps and the disembodied giggling of children. It soon becomes evident that the old building has secrets to hide and a history to protect.
The movie begins well enough, with two orphans creeping along the deserted corridor in the dead of night, heading toward the bathroom. Inside, lights flicker and faucets turn on and off by unseen hands, and a strange mirror attracts the attention of one of the children. He slips and falls on his head, dying instantly and setting the tone for the rest of the movie. However, no matter how creepy and tense the tone becomes, the movie never really quite pays off.
Released in France in 2004 under the name Saint Ange, the movie marked the feature directorial debut of Pascal Laugier. His previous credits included only two documentaries about the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf. For his first feature-length film, Laugier does an admirable job of creating a creepy atmosphere. A far cry from documentary style, this feature incorporates odd camera angles and well-placed lighting to achieve the director's goal.
Virginie Ledoyen, whom some might remember from The Beach, stars as Anna, who shows up at the orphanage with a secret or two of her own, primarily that she's pregnant. She hides her condition as well as possible by binding her enlarged belly, but soon discovers that the child within her is less of a worry than the "scary children" who still roam the halls. Ledoyen's portrayal is sympathetic and real, allowing the viewer to see real fear in her eyes, as well as the frustration at her own situation. Her character comes across as strong and determined, caring about what happened to the children who came before. Unfortunately, the script provides her with little chance to expand on that character.
In her supporting role as Judith, Lou Doillon gives a remarkable performance. Coming across as just a little more psychotic than tragic, she at first proves to be the creepiest part of the movie. As the film progresses, her character moves from being unhinged to fragile and frightened. Her performance is so utterly over-the-top that it is endearing and gives the viewer the chance that the actress may have more in common with the character than anyone knows.
The only major shortcoming of this film comes from the writing. Penned by Laugier, House of Voices spends the entirety of its time building to crescendo that never happens. The tension continues to build, as does the atmosphere, but there's no payoff at the end. The final scene which, without giving anything away, is creepy, but it falls flat and doesn't really match up to the build.
Still, House of Voices is a beautifully shot piece of film. The location used for it, somewhere in the French Alps, is perfect as a haunted mansion. There's something about a huge empty building that makes it creepy to begin with. Laugier's camera only augments the chills.
On the whole, there is something to be said for a directorial debut that is as well-done as this movie is. The shortcomings of this film are forgivable up until the end. Viewers that are looking for something that drips creepiness could do worse than this film.
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