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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

THE HAUNTING -- movie review by porfle

[Note: Fangoria magazine has teamed up with Lightning Media and Blockbuster for a series of eight horror/thrillers which will be available exclusively on DVD, VOD, and digital download Sept. 28 under the "Fangoria FrightFest" banner. This film is part of that series.]

Hardly the sort of flashy, pyrotechnics-packed SPFX show POLTERGEIST turned out to be, 2009's THE HAUNTING (aka NO-DO: THE BECKONING) is the kind of slow-building, stately-paced ghost story that really gets under your skin if you're willing to settle in and let it go to work on you.

In 1940s Spain under General Franco, propaganda newsreels known as "No-Dos" packaged the latest news for general theater audiences, but a certain number of these films containing sensitive material were made for privileged eyes only.  Thus, only high-ranking members of the Catholic church were allowed to view footage involving a mysterious prostitute purported to be able to perform miracles, and the ill-fated process of judging her suitability for canonization which resulted in her supposed suicide and other unfortunate consequences.

Jump ahead to the present day, where Francesca (Ana Torrent), Pedro (Francisco Boira), their young daughter Rosa, and their infant son have just moved into the imposing old country mansion, formerly a school for priests, where the previous events took place.  Having lost their first child ten years earlier, Francesca is overprotective of their new baby to the point of frazzled obsession, which worries her husband.  And making things worse is the fact that Francesca is beginning to experience a growing number of terrifying paranormal visions as Pedro fears that she's losing her mind.  But we know better, don't we?

One thing that has always creeped me out is the use of scratchy, faded old black and white film as a mysterious element in stories such as this.  THE HAUNTING really scores on this count, with the forbidden No-Do reels playing a crucial role in ratcheting up the creep-out factor.  We discover that they were made using a special emulsion that made it possible to capture supernatural entities on the film, which is demonstrated by some pretty disturbing images.  When Father Miguel (Héctor Colomé), a psychiatrist priest bent on helping Francesca, opens up a shadowy, top-secret vault and plays one of the forbidden reels for her and Pedro (thus risking excommunication), it's one of the skin-crawling highpoints of THE HAUNTING. 

Meanwhile, back at the mansion, we find that the couple's new home isn't going to help Francesca's unstable mental condition much.  In fact, they might as well have just moved into the friggin' Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland.  The distraught new mother keeps waking up in the middle of the night by banging noises and footsteps coming from the attic, which naturally her annoying skeptical husband never hears, and before long she's seeing ghostly figures floating around.  In one scene she grabs a flashlight and follows a trail of footprints into one of the upper rooms, where they go right up the wall and onto the ceiling.

The house is so alive with restless spirits that the film soon has us watching the shadows in every shot, waiting for them to coalesce into eerie figures.  Adding to the nightmare is Francesca's constant concern for her baby, whose incessant screaming has her at wit's end, and the presence of a weird old woman named Blanca (María Alfonsa Rosso) who keeps hanging around the house due to her involvement in the ghastly events of years past.  Even Francesca's daughter Rosa is starting to act strange, as though she knows something she's not telling.

The film is directed with stylish assurance by Elio Quiroga and elegantly photographed, with a very deliberate pace that allows us to wallow in the deeply atmospheric mood.  Argento fans should feel at home here, as will those who enjoy creepy old B-movies such as THE SCREAMING SKULL.  Special effects for their own sake are kept to a minimum and serve the story, with some genuinely unsettling ghostly images augmented by two or three blood-chilling jump scares.  A robust musical score alternates between sinewy subtlety and ear-splitting cacophony. 

As the story builds to a climax there's a fairly shocking surprise ending with some nasty twists.  (I'm glad I'm not one of those "I saw it coming" people--who wants to always know the surprise before it's revealed?)  In one of the best moments, Francesca, following one of the ghosts into the house's musty attic, finds herself inside the darkest and most ghastly of the old No-Do films and witnesses firsthand the horrors which inspired the haunting itself.  Unfortunately, the appearance of a final apparition which is meant to be the ultimate embodiment of evil is a bit of a letdown after all the anticipation, its monsterish countenance rather conventional and not very imaginatively designed.  But this is a minor quibble since the rest of the film is so pervasively effective.

DVD specs were unavailable, but according to the film, "arriving as a Blockbuster exclusive August 6, will include a subtitled making-of featurette, the 8 FANGORIA FRIGHTS cable special and the eight FrightFest trailers. The DVD will offer both Spanish (with subtitles) and English-language soundtracks."

I've seen THE HAUNTING twice now and liked it even more the second time because I could better appreciate its visual style, good performances, and devious little nuances.  It's an old-fashioned ghost story with the visceral impact of a modern horror tale, and it left me feeling satisfied if not entirely terrified.

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