Italy’s Fascist Past Is But a Minor Character in ‘The Haunting of Helena’

Freud tells us in his essay The Uncanny (1919) that the nastily violent nature of children’s fairy tales speaks to our fears of physical carnage, the dismemberment of the body that represents our fear of losing the self entirely.

In other words, nobody wants anything that’s attached to them ripped off or ripped out. Maybe not a light bulb moment of an insight, but at least one that goes down into our primal roots.

These nightmares won’t let us go. Bedtime story terrors are still out to get us, so much so that, believe it or not, the tooth fairy horror film almost constitutes its own sub-genre. Over the last decade or so films like Darkness Falls, The Tooth Fairy and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark have explored the decidedly creepy nature of this fairy tale and its dark origins in both our fear of the dark and terror of dismemberment.

We have yet another entry with Haunting of Helena an Italian film with fairly narrow distribution in the US. Many of its themes, and the way it proposes to scare us, will be immediately recognizable to horror film aficionados. Sadly it’s a bit too recognizable.

Haunting of Helena aspires to some degree of historical literacy. Set amidst the modernism of the architecture of Mussolini’s Littoria, the film grounds its backstory in Italy’s fascist past.

At least, sort of. The film actually undercuts itself significantly here. The narrative locates the act of violence that generates the monster in a domestic squabble turned as ugly as ugly can be. I thought this was an unfortunate decision, especially for an independent Italian film that could have rattled some of the ghosts of Italy’s dark past (not unlike what Guillermo del Toro was able to do with the Spanish Civil War).

Borrowing a bit from the beginning of The Exorcist and a hundred of its imitators, Helena and her mom Sophia are dealing with all the basic tropes of household horror. A troubled family background leads to nightmares leads to increasingly outré behavior from the kid. She purchases her classmate’s baby teeth, for example, with coins from ’30s Italy that came from “the fairy”. By the end of the second act, the Fairy’s identity revealed, we are ready for some howling bloody murder horror.

We don’t get it and instead end up with an odd time jump that, at first, I thought might at least depart from the standard cursed place narrative. It just slows the whole affair down when the filmmakers should have concentrated their efforts on raising our blood pressure a bit more and dropping us into the panic pit, a la Sinister and Insidious. Instead, they took their foot off the pedal at exactly the wrong place and the whole thing ends up mediocre at best.

The direction feels a bit haphazard and the acting never rises above the level of TV movie of the week. Dependent on psychological terror rather than full on blood and gore, it never really achieves the taunt suspense on which such horror flicks depend. When the angry tooth fairy really comes out for blood (and teeth), we are more bored that frightened. A jump scare here and there rattles our cages but we mostly see it all coming.

Having said that, some praise should go to the monster designers and to the cinematographer. The bloody fairy looks properly disturbing and might give you a bad turn or two in the night. The effects are mostly excellent throughout and, despite a number of fairly conventional shots, the film is generally beautifully, and occasionally horrifically, photographed. In one scene, bloody teeth rain down on a scared little Helena in a sparse hospital room and it’s a moment with plenty of shivers.

The special features are spare. A “Behind the Scenes” featurette runs very short and feels like a combination music video and scene montage. It primarily gives a bit of information about what led to the making of the film and very general observations about the process (“producer/director worked well together” and “visual effects are important”). We do learn about some interesting influences over the film’s photography from the metaphysical painting school. Nevertheless, this feature only runs about seven minutes.

An even stranger feature runs only about a minute and a half and simply shows a quick succession of images in the film created from digital special effects. That’s really all we get from the special features other than the film’s trailer.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the disc concerns the scene selection tab. Producers of the DVD divided the entire film into eight scenes, not allowing for much micromanagement of the viewing experience. All in all, you really get the sense of little time and effort expended on the DVD release.

Although an effort in Italian independent horror filmmaking, the film too clearly apes American themes of “real estate horror” recycled through a bit of family drama. If you fear Freud’s Uncanny visiting you in the night, it probably wont be because of Haunting of Helena.

RATING 4 / 10