Saturday, May 29, 2010

House of Voices a.k.a Saint Ange (2004)

So this is the movie that begins the maiden voyage of this here horror blog of mine. With the 2004 French film "House of Voices" or "Saint Ange". There are other ones that I could have started with, and plenty that I plan to re-watch so as to blog about, but this was my most recent foray, and so it is the freshest in my mind.

I wouldn't call myself a stranger to Foreign horror films, on the whole I have found the most original horror movies of the past decades were NOT made in America. I've seen my fair share of films from Asia, Sweden, and more than a few from Spain, however this was my first French horror film. So I haven't seen any of director Pascal Laugier's other works, specifically Martyrs, although with all the buzz surrounding that one, I think I am going to have to add it into the queue.

I would like to tell you that there is a significant reason why this is the first movie to be reviewed here. That there was a compelling reason that made me say "AH-HA! THIS ONE!", but that would be a lie. The honest truth is that I had a few hours to kill, and this was one of the few horror films in my Netflix queue available for instant watch. So watch it instantly I did.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, these are all things for a later date, for now I am supposed to be talking about House of Voices.

The basic premise of this film surrounds an orphanage, and the young woman who becomes employed there. From the opening of the film we are introduced to the idea of the "scary children" by a wide-eyed little blond girl, afraid to use the orphanage's bathroom alone at night. We aren't told anymore about these "scary children", other than an over heard conversation, in which someone says "how many more children need to die here?" but this isn't a new concept, and you can pretty easily infer that something bad happened to other children and they are still roaming around the place.

While I say that this is not the most original of concepts, when you get down to it there really are few things that are creepier than undead children. Or evil children, or sometimes, just children in general. This is part of what made films like Ringu, The Omen, Dark Water, and The Exorcist so effective.

Creepy, creepy children.

So we open with the "Scary Children", and then after the title we meet the leading lady. Our heroine, Anna's story is just as implied as the whispered "scary children". She is pregnant, and going to great lengths to hide it, this is understandable, considering the post World War II setting of the film, where a single mother would definitely not be well received. But aside from the pregnancy nothing else is spelled out, there is mention of her needing to "start over", and a flash back-esque short dream sequence involving her being surrounded by a group of men. We are also later shown her scarred back, and it is implied that this is the work of her past employers, and maybe then so is the pregnancy?

She has been hired to essentially care-take, I believe, the Saint Ange orphanage until new children are to be brought in. One such child, on her way out whispers to Anna to "beware the scary children", which serves as the catalyst for the rest of the film. The character of the headmistress is incredibly severe, and really only developed enough to show the viewer that she is harsh, and shifty, and more than likely hiding some sort of dark secret. Probably about the "scary children". The Headmistress, however, leaves as soon as the children do, and Anna is left with the Chef, Helenka, and the barking mad waif named Judith.

Judith was once an orphan at Saint Ange, but she was never adopted, more than likely because of the aforementioned insanity. We are not given her age, but she appears to be between 18 to 21, but when asked about her age she gets all together unreasonably offended. When she's not wafting about the orphanage playing dress up, or just being generally mad, Judith tends to mumble about the children "wanting to play", or "coming to her in her sleep".

Anna becomes closer to Judith as she becomes more and more obsessed with finding out what happened to the children. However, there is not really the feeling that the motivation for Anna's interest in the children is anywhere near maternal, or because she is pregnant. It seems to be more her distraction from her own life is to pry into the lives of the "scary children" and Judith's connection to them.

Anna is an obviously emotionally wounded character, she repeatedly makes decisions that are not logical, but not unexpected. And even though she is warned time and time again against prying into the past of the Saint Ange Orphanage, and despite the fact that every new thing she uncovers should deter her from going any further, the obsession just grows.

To be fair though, if she gave up as soon as things got a bit eerie there would not be much of a movie.

The strength of the movie truly lies in the visual aspects of it. There is a definite dream like quality to it, if nothing else can be said, this movie is absolutely beautiful to look at. And Laugier's decision to take his film in a psychological direction, where there are no "BOO!" moments, but subtle, creeping instances, (a half seen figure of a child here, a ghostly hand print there)is rather clever, and further the surreal aspect.

He does understand the idea that what you imagine is in the shadows will inevitably be more terrifying than what film can produce, it is best to let the viewer scare themselves senseless. However, the reveal of the film, when you find out the origin of the "scary children" and indeed, see them, you are not disappointed like is generally the case when the "monster" or what-have-you is finally shown.

When you see the "scary children" they are sufficiently scary. Laugier promises creepy little kids, and he delivers on it.

However, unfortunately, after the reveal the film seems to kind of sputter. The conclusion feels disjointed from the rest of the film, and I am left wondering if Laugier was up against a deadline and just said:
"Oh hell, I just need to END this movie" and we are left with a lot of build-up and then a kind of "wait... what was that even?"

When looking around the internet I saw that this movie was getting a very mixed reception, and after viewing it I understand why. It's not for everyone.
It is, at times, almost more of an art film than a horror. It is much slower paced than what most horror movie goers will be willing to sit through, it is quiet, and thoughtful. Laugier doesn't spell anything out, you have to come to your own conclusions. That being said, some of those conclusions are nearly impossible to get to.

I can't say this is a movie I would recommend to the horror fan crowd in general. However, if you are someone who is interested in a sensitive, almost fairy-tale sort of ghost story, this meets that.

But if you are looking for a solidly creepy, mind bending, orphanage movie that makes you surprised and aghast at the great reveal, this is not it. If that's what you want, instead see Guillermo Del Toro's "The Orphanage", because that film is absolutely AMAZING, and I fully intend on doing a re-watch so as to write a long, fan-girlish, review on it.


  1. Please, see Martyrs now. Don't expect to be "entertained" in the standard sense, but rather expect to be deeply moved, wrenched, disgusted, but ultimately uplifted into a feeling of transitory beauty. A remarkable film that many, many people would disagree with me to the point of calling it utter trash and just as many would agree with me. My bolg is a virtual shrine to it! Just remember, it anit no Saint Ange! thanks for listening!

  2. Oh, and the Orphanage ruled too as did Pan's Labyrinth!

  3. Wow! Thanks for being the first person to comment! This gets you illusory brownie points as I have no way of awarding physical ones ... I have no idea how I would even do that... ANYWAY;

    I have Martyrs in my queue of movies that I must give a good watching and reviewing! After everything I've heard about it though, I am saving it for a night where I can really gear myself up for what is undoubtedly going to be a psychological roller coaster.

    And oh Goodness, Orphanage and Pan's Labyrinth, so amazing, Del Toro officially has this horror fangirl's heart.

    Thanks for the interest in the blog! I've checked yours out as well and am adding it to my following blogs! Hopefully you'll stop by TGDH again in the future!

  4. The American release of House of Voices is not near as good as the original. It edited out key points in the story that made it seem confusing. If you can get your hands on a copy of Saint Ange I would recommend getting it as it's hard to find. It is much better than the American version. I watched on either IFC or Sundance channel, can't remember which one, then watched the American release later on. It's definitely not as good.

  5. El Orfanato wasn't directed by Guillermo del Toro but by Juan Antonio Bayona; Del Toro was producing, although I think his influence was minimal.
    Pascal Laugier came up with a couple of decent films like aforementioned Martyrs and the Tall Man. Martyrs is much more extreme in the kind of horror it presents whereby the Tall Man is more of (psychological) thriller, but both suffer from a convoluted finale that strains believability even within the world it plays in. The conclusions are high concept but not smart enough (which off course is deadly) and seem to take their implications too serious. Considering the ridiculous nature of them the seriousness comes off as pretentious.
    Fairly good films and at times thrilling and upsetting but by the time they end you wonder what the point of it was as the conclusions are simply to silly.

  6. I think my major complaint about the Orphanage and this movie is


    We good?

    My major complaint is the fate of the woman. In each movie, the woman has a child issue: One was expecting a child she wasn't ready for, the other caused the death of her own child through negligence (or whatever you call attributing the thumping in your house to ghosts, not your trapped, recently missing child who is dying).

    Instead of addressing these very real-world problems, the storytellers choose to let the mother die so she can become a "ghost mommy" to little "ghost children."

    The first time I saw this, in the Orphanage, I thought, "Well, that was a twist!" The second time, in this movie, I began to feel like this was some sort of penance being inflicted upon the lead heroine. "You're not fit to be a mother! SO YOU WILL BE ONE TO ALL THESE NEEDY GHOST CHILDREN FOREVER AS PENANCE! Muahahahaa!" That's pretty horrifying to me, but why is that an acceptable outcome?

    Try to imagine the story with a leading man instead of a leading lady. Can you imagine the story of a man who has done something that would label him a poor father (accidental infanticide, abandonment, whatever), coming to a creep old orphanage. Do you think the story would end with him dying and playing ghost baseball with the ghost children?

    Are there any suspense stories that feature orphanages where the leading actresses don't become ghost mommies? Is this a coincidence or a trope?

    I liked both these films, but I have reservations about their nearly identical endings. The storytellers could try harder to bring real resolution for these characters and not toss us these hackneyed bones.

    1. Was the woman in the Orphanage truly negligent, though? The police were called, everyone had search the house and grounds thoroughly, and no one had any idea that there was a secret basement with a hidden door... She had every reason to believe that he was kidnapped. And considering how well he was hidden, would it have made any difference if she had gone to investigate the banging? Old houses make really weird noises. I probably would have done the same.

  7. My question is this: what EXACTLY is the background story on the children? I mean, did they die because of experimentation, like the movie suggests, or is it because of mustard gas from the war? Or was it because of possible mental trauma they couldn't handle? This movie, although I've only ever seen the English dubbed version, is one of my favorites. I took a senior level English class in college that helped me analyze books, and films, but I've only watched this film for enjoyment. I think when I watch it next, I'll analyze it. But I'm so so so curious about the children's back story.