Iím hopeful that the pendulum is swinging the other way when it comes to horror movies. The last few years have seen a disheartening influx of the so-called ďtorture pornĒ pictures Ė horror flicks whose sole purpose seems to be showing people getting maimed and disfigured in increasingly gruesome ways. Thankfully, the most recent entries in that genre havenít done so well at the box office, and a more traditional style of horror seems to be coming back into vogue. This summer brought us the fantastically scary 1408, and now we get another winner, The Orphanage.
If the studio releasing this film stateside could write this review for me, theyíd probably want me to say that The Orphanage is this yearís Panís Labyrinth. There are some similarities. Both films are in Spanish, with English subtitles. Both use traditional fantasy elements in artful ways. And Panís filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is listed as a producer on this new film. Iím not sure that The Orphanage is going to make the same kind of impact that the earlier film did, but both represent great examples of fantasy filmmaking.
Belen Rueda plays Laura, who grew up in an orphanage. As an adult, she purchases the very same orphanage where she once lived; she and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have renovated the building and turned it into a special home for disabled children. Their inspiration was their own adopted son Simon (Roger Princep), who has some serious health issues. Simon has an odd reaction to the place, though. Already prone to creating imaginary friends, he claims to see and even speak to other unseen children on the premises. They even engage him in a ďhide and seekĒ game in which he has to follow a series of clues to retrieve a stolen object.
Laura thinks the boy is just letting his imagination carry him away, but there are some strange goings-on, including the appearance of a mysterious child with a creepy burlap mask over his face. (Just try getting that image out of your head once you see it!) Around this same time, Simon disappears. Itís unclear whether he ran away, or was taken by the imaginary friends. Laura starts opening her mind to supernatural possibilities, which lead her to increasingly frightening places and, ultimately, one round of a childhood game that will give you goosebumps as you watch. This is a good place for me to stop talking about plot. You donít want to know in advance what happens.
I was surprised to learn, once The Orphanage was over, that itís rated R. Thereís no blood or gore on display here at all. The scares come from those reliable old standbys: a sense of dread, the fear of the unseen, the palpable tension that arises when you know somethingís going to happen but you donít know when. My all-time favorite movie for this kind of thing is Alien, which lets you hang for a full hour before the creature finally makes a grand entrance. That anticipation is infinitely more scary than the sadism of the Saw pictures. The Orphanage gets it exactly right; it builds suspense by sending out a disquieting vibe, then letting it slowly permeate your psyche before paying it off.
Consider one of the movieís scariest sequences, in which a seer (Geraldine Chaplin) and a team of paranormal experts are brought in to monitor the house. Something happens, although we Ė and they Ė are not sure what. Director Juan Antonio Bayona shows us just enough to let us know that otherworldly forces are at work, but he doesnít show us so much that we know everything right away. He builds a similar tension late in the movie when Laura is forced to follow a series of clues herself. Each clue potentially leads her to something wonderful or something horrific. Because we donít know for certain what she will find, the sequence becomes increasingly eerie.
The Orphanage kind of reminded me of a Stephen King novel. King is a master of fright, but his books always have a theme to them. He never does scary just for its own sake; itís always used to convey an idea or a sentiment. Similarly, Bayona has something more up his sleeve. The Orphanage uses the horror format to convey ideas about the very nature of life and death, as well as about the welfare of children. When it was over, I was still reeling from the scariness of the developments, yet I also felt moved emotionally by what the picture was trying to say.
Thatís a potent combination, right there. And this is a potent movie, filled with good performances, a creepy style, and more intelligence than twenty torture porn movies put together. The Orphanage is one of the best ghost story films Iíve ever seen.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Orphanage is rated R for some disturbing content. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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