Every few years it seems someone takes a crack at the “classy ghost story” style of horror story, from the glacially-paced and quiet (Pascal Laugier’s Saint Ange in 2004) to the more visceral (Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage in 2007), all of which try to conjure up a similar atmosphere of dread. It’s a tricky balance trying to keep things interesting while most of the time not much of anything is going on. Misjudgments can make scenes meant to be tense just seem like long quiet stretches between loud noises. When done well, these stories are compelling and creepy. When not done so well, they can be fatally boring. Italian filmmakers Christian Bisceglia and Ascanio Malgarini’s The Haunting of Helena (originally titled Fairytale) is one of the latest films in this subgenre, and leans more toward the visceral end of the spectrum. However, its strong effects work is basically the only thing it brings to the table.
Sophia (Harriet Masters-Green) is a professor living in Italy with her daughter Helena (Sabrina Jolie Perez) after divorcing her husband Robert (Jarreth J. Merz). The huge apartment they have moved into includes a beautiful but ominous armoire that Helena demands be put in her room. Soon thereafter, Helena loses one of her baby teeth and becomes strangely obsessed with teeth. When Sophia asks her why, Helena explains that the woman in the armoire is looking for her teeth. Sophia is understandably upset, but when she learns that the apartment was the scene of a grisly murder decades earlier, she starts to wonder if Sophia’s new imaginary friend isn’t something more sinister.
From here, The Haunting of Helena treads mostly familiar ground in both its ghost story and the family drama running parallel to it. Robert comes back into the picture after a traumatic run-in with the ghost leaves Helena nearly catatonic, and the strain on his and Sophia’s relationship comes to the fore. Meanwhile, the weird lady from the closet continues to follow Helena even into the institution where her mother has her committed. The film’s “haunting” sequences are mostly done with near-seamless CGI effects, especially where objects in the frame are rendered to be nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. However, the trade-off is that in order to help sell these effects, the entire film is shot in a very flat, severe style that is not very interesting. Each scene and location has its own particular color palette, but they are so drained of life that they don’t make much of an impression.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for the film as a whole. Despite the mostly solid CG effects and some nice late-film twists, The Haunting of Helena is just too slick and mannered for its own good. The film’s gruesome scenes will likely put off anyone looking for a more traditional ghost story, while anyone expecting more action will probably find the film’s pacing frustrating. There are some worthwhile ideas here, though, so hopefully the filmmakers’ next project will take more advantage of their story concepts more than their access to a good CG effects house.
Salient Media/The Collective released The Haunting of Helena on DVD on 17 September 2013. Special features include a “making of” featurette and a visual effects reel.