The list of films that genuinely scare me - not the "aiee, shock cuts!" sort of adrenaline spike that any hack with a camera can crap out, but honest-to-God shivery, "leave the lights on, please" scared - is a very small list indeed. And right near the top of that list is The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise in 1963.

Unlike the vast bulk of horror movies before or after, The Haunting works almost entirely because of its soundscape. No creepy story (hardly any story at all), no gore, no cats jumping into frame, and a set that, while unnerving, is hardly exceptional in the annals of blandly unfrightening haunted house movies. It's all in the bangs, the creaks, the footsteps where there aren't feet and the voices where there aren't throats, and the inherently-creepy sound of the wind.

I bring this up because for a while, I had strong hopes that the shiny new Spanish/UK/Bulgarian horror picture The Abandoned was going to work in the same vein. For much of the first act, the film - the breakout hit of last November's After Dark Horrorfest - is content to let its heroine Marie (Anastasia Hille) poke around a dark old house with a dark secret concerning her past, as she hears noises that come from nowhere and mean nothing occasionally spotting a figure out of the corner of her eye that looks shockingly like a waterlogged version of Marie herself. Not to mention, there's some fine old-fashioned running around the woods with a flashlight and no moon. It's low-key, and genuinely frightening (those two things absolutely go together, of course). And a horror movie that's genuinely frightening is the most precious gem in all of modern cinema, I've said that once or twice or a couple of dozen times, and I am being perfectly sincere when I say that the first half-hour of The Abandoned is brilliant. There is a moment when an expository dream sequence erupts in the most unnerving, enveloping of surround sound I have heard in a couple of years:* when you can wring creepiness out of exposition, you're doing something really right.

It's not terribly surprising that the filmmakers can't keep this up, although it is disappointing. The director, Nacho Cerdร  (his feature debut), keeps things up for a while after the story that he co-wrote runs aground, but eventually he starts having to recycle visual tricks, and it's pretty easy to check out of the film. Right, the story: so what happens is that Marie has gone to Russia from Los Angeles to explore the home of her birth mother, far off on a wooded island in a river, where there are terrible psychic scars of the traumatic event that led to her mother's death and her own adoption by Londoners. This is good. After she kicks around the house for a while, she meets a man who claims to be her twin brother, and together they start to hunt down clues to their past. This is not as good. Eventually, they figure out what happened. This is bad.

I cannot name a single scary film that is explicable. The unknown is always, always, always more scary than the known, and as soon as a ghost/monster/killer has a backstory, it has been made into a known. And the ghosts of The Abandoned have a particularly stupid backstory that I won't hurt myself by repeating.

What's really unfortunate is that as a direct result of how the story functions, its very real virtues from the opening begin to disappear. The ghosts that we originally saw in the corner of a frame, piece by piece (it's a hand...it's a shoulder...), by dint of becoming characters, are filmed in full light medium shots, just like normal people, and it gets very hard not to think of them as normal people. And since we're seeing them on camera now, the beautiful soundscape goes to hell. Although it is worth noting that every single moment in the last 40 minutes of the film that actually works as a scare, is first a moment of sound. There's one particular moment that I hesitate to spoil, so forgive my vagueness: Marie is hiding, comes to realise that the thing she's hiding from knows where she is, and this moment of realization comes because she hears a noise where there shouldn't be noise. Less than one second after the noise, the image cuts to the thing, and it's supposed to be horribly scary, I guess, but that fraction of a second before the cut was infinitely more effective than the image.

I probably could have cut through the last three paragraphs by invoking a very old rule that Cerdร  has apparently not encountered, or ignored or forgot: what you don't show is always scarier than what you show. Usually, this is because what you show looks like a man in makeup (so many examples! Let's stick with the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes), but sometimes, it's because an uncanny atmosphere needs to be surreal and ephemeral to retain its sense of the uncanny. Showing makes thing literal: it gives the ghost a form and a shape, and to have a shape is to be defined. When The Abandoned works, it does so specifically because there is no anchor for the noises we hear, for the scraps of imagery. They could be from any source in any direction. A formed ghost is a thing, not a concept, and a thing can be contained. That is exactly what happens to this film: it is contained in a neat little box, and tamed, and made perfectly safe. It makes perfect sense. There's nothing remotely frightening about things that make sense.

5/10