Pascal Laugier hasn't directed too many movies yet, but he sure makes them count. House of Voices [Saint Ange] was his first feature film and while it looks a little inconspicuous from the outside, it hides a dark and unsettling secret, much like Laugier's other films. I remembered House of Voices as a slow burner with a nasty ending, but wasn't quite sure if it would still hold up after the boom of the French horror scene in the late 00s. There was only one way to find out, so I figured it was time to give Laugier's first another run for its money.
Laugier didn't make it easy on himself when he released Martyrs. That film transcended the horror scene and its cult potential to become one of the most revered (and also feared) films of the 2000s. It's an almost impossible film to live up to and it's somewhat unfair to compare Laugier's other films to it directly, but it's also pretty much inevitable. Just know that House of Voices is a very different kind of horror film and that you're only setting yourself up for disappointment if you expect it to be in the same ball park.
House of Voices is all about the buildup. The beginning is rather slow and the pacing is very deliberate. While the sense of dread is present from the very start, Laugier only reveals small tidbits during the first half hour or so. Because of the setting (a remote orphanage in France) the seasoned horror fan will quickly fill in the blanks, but that seems to be exactly what Laugier is going for here. House of Voices may look like a prequel to J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage, things aren't quite as simple in Laugier's film and whatever comfort you conjure up throughout the first half, will be gleefully torn down during the second.
Anna arrives at Saint Ange to help clean up the place. After several fatal accidents, the orphanage was ordered to close down and the children are being moved to a more modern facility. All that remains is a small clean-up crew, and Judith, a special needs child who is all grown up, but never left the place. It doesn't take long before Anna begins to sense another presence in the house, a feeling fueled by Judith's strange remarks and behavior. Anna is about to discover the dark past of the orphanage, but her lucidity isn't entirely beyond question either.
On a visual level, House of Voices sticks closely to genre conventions, but the execution is pretty much flawless. The location provides a perfect setting for a horror film, but it's still up the director and cinematographer to make good use it. Which they do, as the camera slowly pans and floats through the corridors and decaying rooms. And as the film grows darker, the cinematography adapts with it. The camera works gets a little grittier and more nervous, which comes to full fruition in the elevator scene. I won't spoil what happens after that, but the visuals are a big part of why the ending worked so well here.
The soundtrack is pretty decent, but nothing too exceptional. It's a moody, subtle and lingering score that provides the necessary atmosphere, but doesn't really stand out. The dubbing on the other hand is a trickier problem. Dubs are still very common, but Laugier actually reshot the scenes that feature dialogue. It sounds like a nifty idea, but in reality it means most editions will come with only one dub option (i.e., the English one). And while the actors do a relatively decent job, the English dub is completely inferior to the French one (which is pretty hard to find and doesn't come with subtitles). So unless you speak French or don't mind getting your hands dirty, there lie some tough dubbing choices ahead of you when you decide to watch this film.
The cast is small, but talented. Horror films rarely depend on their actors, but because the first part of the film is quite slow and delicate, it's nice to have some decent acting talent to fall back on. Virginie Ledoyen's transition from wallflower to cornerstone character is effective, Lou Doillon's borderline coherent and creepy performance is also a big plus. The secondary cast is tiny but does a solid job too. The characters aren't very complex or challenging, even so the cast makes sure they don't remain nameless stereotypes.
House of Voices is not for everyone. Even though the ending is quite weird and out there, the first part of the film is deliberately slow and the build-up is minute. It's clear that Laugier has full control over the genre, as he plays with pacing and clichés to mess with the expectations of the audience. House of Voices may feel like a classic haunted house film, but it ends up being something else entirely. Familiarity with the horror genre, its tropes and clichés is definitely a plus when watching this film, otherwise it will be hard to fully enjoy Laugier's handiwork.
That's not to say House of Voices is a difficult film, only that its full potential may be a little harder to uncover. It's a very nice statement piece to start off a career and Laugier hasn't disappointed since. While Laugier has gotten even better throughout the years, House of Voices remains a very pleasant and worthwhile film to revisit. It's extremely atmospheric, the build-up is impeccable, performances are great and the finale is exactly what I wanted from this film. A horror film that has the full package. Just pick wisely when it comes to the dub.