The Orphanage (2007) / Horror-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for frightening images and language
Running time: 105 min

Cast: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Mabel Rivera, Montserat Carulla, Andres Gertrudix, Edgar Vivar
Director: J.A. Bayona

Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez
Review published May 19, 2008

Not exactly the freshest of ideas, but very well delivered, first-time feature film director Juan Antonio Vayona's The Orphanage succeeds in setting us up for the possibility of a ghost story, then carrying through its ideas to the end with respectable conviction without the need of a "gotcha" twist ending.  It's an old-fashioned spin, not too different from the 1960s version of The Haunting or, more recently, The Others, with spiritual leanings toward classic Henry James' story, "The Turn of the Screw".  There is also a thematic similarity to The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, which shouldn't be much of a surprise if you know that the director of those films, Guillermo del Toro, is the producer of The Orphanage, and also commissioned a less-horrific rewrite of the original script to add more nuance and character elements within the creepy story.

The protagonist of the story is 37-year-old Laura (Rueda, The Sea Inside), who spent her days as a youth in an orphanage by the sea in Spain.  She was one of the lucky ones who found herself adopted into a loving home, though leaving was bittersweet, as she had left all the friends she'd ever known behind.  Three decades later, Laura returns home again when she and her husband Carlos (Cayo, El Juego de la Verdad), along with their adopted seven-year-old boy, Simon (Princep), take over the now-shut down orphanage in order to make it a home for disabled children.   However, since arriving at the home, Simon begins exhibiting strange behavior, including talking to other children only he sees and knowing things about his parents that he couldn't possibly know.  it's clear that there's more than meets the eye about the orphanage that is causing Simon to act so bizarre, and fate forces the issue when the young and emotional lad goes missing altogether.  Laura is sure that Simon's imaginary friends know the answer.

I've often been perplexed by modern day Hollywood horror films, as they are generally of the same mold, asking us to accept supernatural premises without explanation or offering the semblance of bounds.  Many of them are merely an exercise in shock, as we watch characters we are never given a personal connection to go through scary environs only to be startled at predictable intervals by unpleasant imagery.  The Orphanage has its share of jolts, but Bayona, working on a script by first-timer Sergio G, Sanchez, takes the time to introduce the characters as real people before putting them in jeopardy, and the pay-off is well earned.  Though not the goriest movie you'll ever see, the fact that you grow to know and understand the characters and their motivations, no matter how fantastic, guides us as viewers every step of the way through this otherwise surreal, macabre tale.

Also unlike today's schlock, The Orphanage doesn't cast young, hot actors with shaggy hair and juvenile attitudes. Like Pan's Labyrinth, this plays like a fairy tale for adults, too scary for young children, but using children to give us that feeling we once had in listening to ghost stories told by family or friends that had us hiding under the covers for nights on end.  Belen Rueda, as Laura, gives a masterful performance in a very demanding role.  Looks of elation or fright are very convincing, and though the search for her adopted child gets to the point where it might seem unreasonable to continue, we've already established that she is most passionate about children and self-sacrifice.  She has already known what it's like to lose a family, and also the benefits of someone coming to rescue her, so she feels that trying to save Simon is the most important thing she could ever do, and abandonment is out of the question.

I could elaborate more about things I enjoyed about The Orphanage, but I think that the less you know about it, and the less expectations you bring into it, the more enjoyment you'll get out of it.  Even the trailer and DVD menus tend to have us anticipating events within the film that we are better off not knowing prior to beginning, so I would suggest starting right into the film with as little information as possible.  That said, I feel I should inform you that the film is R-rated for its scary images and heavy themes, and the pervasive eeriness will probably give impressionable children (and some adults) nightmares, so keep this in mind before opting to give it a go.  It's a rarity for me to claim that a horror film is an emotional experience, or really, truly intense, but the experience of The Orphanage lingers long after it's over. 

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo