June 8, 2008

The Orphanage (El Orfanato) Review


Length: 105 min

A tale of love. A story of horror.

Précis: Terrifying and stylish thriller about supernatural happenings at an ex-orphanage.

Review by Matt:

People in horror movies should watch more horror movies. Then perhaps they wouldn’t do things like walk out into the eerie darkness when they know that supernatural happenings have been going down. The folks in The Orphanage, a new highly-regarded Spanish thriller, aren’t immune to this horror film folly. Idiots! I hissed at them from between my hands. Now we’re all going to hit the roof again! The film also sports many other horror standards – like the sudden, shrieking startle trick, or the weird Jungian ‘icons of fear’ (creepy kids, darkness, disfigurement, masks etc). But The Orphanage is still of a much higher quality than your standard horror film. Not only is it tense and chilling, it also skilfully connects with us on a deeper emotional level.

The horror elements of the story fit fairly neatly into your typical ‘haunted house’ scenario. In this case the  culprit is an old orphanage, filled with painful memories. Spanish actress Belén Rueda gives a strong performance as the harried orphan mother Laura, whose seven-year-old adopted son Simón (world’s cutest boy, Roger Príncep) apparently becomes the favourite of the house’s ghostly inhabitants. Or is it all imagined? Either way, the happenings send Laura off on a pretty freaky journey to untangle a history of secrets. The film evokes a genuine mood of sadness and loss, as well as sets up an ambiguous reality and an intense psychological unease. It’s not all just bumps in the night.

But, oh my nerves, the bumps in the night that we do endure are spine-tingling. Literally – the tense atmosphere and nightmarish episodes had my spine vibrating like a guitar string. The Orphanage is a film that knows what scares us, and also how to make something scare us.  It even infuses the landscape with mystery (a bit like Picnic at Hanging Rock) and transforms little kids into menacing enfant terribles (a task that horror film history proves is not so hard). After suffering the brooding darkness, the inexplicable happenings, and the mysterious old shovel-toting women, I was even starting to be unnerved by that stupid orphanage’s squeaky see-saw. The Orphanage could probably ease up on the cheater’s scare – the SUDDEN LOUD STARTLE trick (make sure there’s a good distance between you and the roof). But it balances this by letting a good deal of suspense stew slowly in our imaginations. The scenes where we watch a night vision video-feed-in of a seer creeping through the mansion are the height of tension.

You can hardly miss The Orphanages boast that its producer is Spain’s darling director Guillermo del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth fame). He does not direct the film though – that job is handled by underling Juan Antonio Bayona. He’s got the style going on – it’s all slow, still camera work, and you better be able to hold your breath for a long time. Bayona’s music video background pokes its unwanted head in occasionally when the score swells a bit too intrusively, but he still preserves a serious mood throughout, far from the laughable horror-hysteria that infects many films of the genre.

There are decent rewards to be gained from this film, primarily in its thrills and top-notch visual style. The story is also mysterious, moving, and comparatively mature. But a few “how did that work?” moments can only be answered with the dissatisfying answer “must’ve been the supernatural”. Accept this supernatural vagueness, and the story is mostly acceptable. Get into the details and you might long for better explanations. All that aside, it simply may not be your thing to brave a film that is so viscerally and psychologically scary; though The Orphanage is a great pick if you want this experience. If it is already your type of thing, then get ye to the orphanage.


One comment

  1. Well said! It was as freaked out as I’d been in a long time.

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