I really dislike it when movies lose their original titles as they are being repackaged for western audiences. This low-budget Italian production was originally called Fairytale. A horror movie called Fairytale sounds mysterious and sinister. Call the same movie The Haunting of Helena and it sounds like someone named Helena is about to get haunted…no more, no less.
In this case, Helena (Sabrina Jolie Perez) is a little girl who has just moved into a new place with her mom, Sophia (Harriet MacMasters-Green) leaving behind philandering dad, Robert (Jarreth J. Merz). Just as Helena is settling into her new surroundings, she loses her first tooth which means a visit from the tooth fairy. Sophia is surprised to learn that this particular fairy lives in Helena's creepy old wardrobe and pays with old-timey currency. Then things get worse as the fairy compels Helena to start buying teeth from her classmates. Then things get even worse(r) when it turns out the fairy isn't really a fairy after all. Finding out who she is and why she wants all those teeth will involve dipping into a backstory filled with old sins, a grisly bit of forced dental work and wolves (yeah, wolves).
My earlier nitpicks about naming aside, The Haunting of Helena is an atmospheric little chiller that starts in a perfectly generic place and stays on the beaten path, occasionally taking detours to stranger terrain. It sets up a classic conflict (parent defending their child against an evil entity) and largely follows the story beats that you would expect from a film of this sort. I suspect these aspects of the film may prove too routine for genre fans who have seen it all. Fortunately, there are odd little dissonant details scattered throughout the film that pay off quite nicely with a masterful climactic long shot that encapsulates a world of despair. The ending may be divisive but I found it to be ballsy and surprising in a way that a Hollywood production would likely shy away from.
While the film's denouement certainly takes some bold risks, the fact remains that for much of its running time, The Haunting of Helena is by-the-numbers in its approach to scares. Directors Christian Bisceglia and Ascanio Malgarini (working from a script by Bisceglia) present the visuals with a fair bit of polish (the opening shot of the film uses CGI to set a nice tone without overdoing it). They also have a firm grasp on the atmosphere which builds in subtle fashion throughout the film. The only problem is we've seen a lot of this before. Predictability isn't a sin but it's definitely a roadblock when you're trying to engage an audience. At least the European setting helps to distinguish the film with a bit of old world flair. Even when I saw scares coming from a mile away, the foreign locations lent them a bit of freshness.
As far as performances go, this is largely Harriet MacMasters-Green's film. She perfectly captures the mixture of frustration and fear required of her character. The film smartly lets her in on the fairy's ghastly shenanigans pretty early on so she doesn't have to waste her (and our) time being in denial of Helena's claims. Sabrina Jolie Perez is less impressive as the child in peril but she does well enough in scenes opposite her movie mom. I also want to give kudos to Susanna Cornacchia who plays the fairy. The film doesn't throw her up on the screen all that often but she always makes her presence felt. She manages to look both menacing and feral even when she's standing perfectly still. Kids would hate losing their teeth if the tooth fairy really looked like her.
The image is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The film possesses a vivid and detailed image. The cool blue color palette occasionally gives way to sepia tones to highlight flashbacks. A lot of scenes take place in darkness which the film handles reasonably well. There are occasional crushed blacks and some banding in darker shots but nothing too distracting. CGI effects are well integrated with the only caveat being that they sometimes call attention to themselves by being too clean.
The audio is presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix. As horror movie soundtracks go, this one doesn't skimp on the goods. We get creaky doors, ominous rustles and a score that is laced with haunting piano pieces. Other than a few bits of dialogue that seemed to be mixed low, I took no issue with the audio track. It was more than capable for the material at hand.
The film has a pretty skimpy selection of extra features. A Behind the Scenes (6:58) piece gives us a quick look at the making of the film including interviews with the producer, creative producer and co-directors. There is some discussion of the challenges in making a low budget independent film along with a glimpse at the VFX shots. This is followed by a slight extension in a VFX Breakdown (1:30) that covers some of the highlights via montage. We close things out with a Trailer (1:34) for the film.
The Haunting of Helena won't win too many points for originality but it offers a fairly polished take on familiar material. It builds a credible atmosphere, taking full advantage of its lived-in European setting. It also caps things off with a bold finale that doesn't take the easy way out with the material. Recommended.