The Orphanage (2007)

Film #7: The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

The Orphanage is a 2007 Spanish-Mexican film written by Sergio G. Sánchez and directed by J.A. Bayona, his debut feature film. It’s considered by many a horror film, but it also borrows heavily from the fantasy genre, which isn’t surprising given that it’s co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, director of the fantastically fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth from the previous year. Protagonist Laura (played by Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage she grew up in with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their seven-year-old adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep). Simón doesn’t know that he’s adopted, or that he has HIV – two secrets that an elderly social worker (Montserrat Carulla) threatens to reveal after she visits Laura one day. Shortly after this encounter, Simón disappears, and Laura is driven to despair.

The Orphanage is a film that uses a lot of standard horror conventions. For instance, a lot of the early creepiness is derived from Simón and his mannerisms. There seems to be something inherently scary about children who are more aware than they should be. It’s why so many movies can use the “creepy kid” trope (The Omen, Children of the Corn, The Orphan, just to name a few) and it can still remain effective. Children possess a unique psychology, one that all of us have experienced but that nearly all of us have forgotten. When they know things that they really shouldn’t – especially when it’s about their own mortality – it’s very disquieting, to say the least. Put them in creepy masks and the effect is that much more powerful. Both the script and Roger Príncep make this horror standard feel refreshing and disturbing all over again, helping the lengthy exposition remain fresh as it draws us into the film.

Like so many other films that deal with the supernatural, the movie plays with reality throughout. First it’s with Simón’s invisible friends, then later, with Laura’s psyche. It’s very unclear what’s real and what’s imagined – the only strong indication either way that I noted was when the medium that Laura contacts for help (yet another horror cliche that is treated maturely) finds and reports the spirits of the five children from yesteryear, all writhing in pain from an apparent poisoning.  The rest of the film plays more ambiguously, like Turn of the Screw, which makes sense since Sánchez cites that as a literary influence.

The story reveals itself slowly, with well-constructed turns that invoked audible appreciation from me as I watched it. The movie mixes sudden scares with long, drawn-out suspense, both of them entirely effective in the capable hands of director Bayona. One of the most memorable sequences involved a single long shot swinging back and forth between Laura and some ghost children as she plays a game to lure them out. It’s the type of shot that shows Bayona really knows how to use his camera to scare his audience, whereas other shots just show that he knows how to create beautiful art. Near the end, when Laura descends the stairs into the basement, her single light source illuminating her against pitch-black surroundings… it’s just such beautiful cinematography that it has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

The horror genre is one in which quality films are sadly scarce. The Orphanage destroys that trend. With an intelligent script, fantastic lead actors, and absolutely beautiful direction, The Orphanage is pretty much a perfect horror movie.

Final rating: 9.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • One very minor complaint is how bland Laura’s husband Carlos was. Dude was as white bread as you could get.
  • This movie, like Insidious, tries to present a real-world explanation to all its supernatural goings-on – but this film, unlike Insidious, actually earns it.
  • Cool stuff with the lighting and colors – super low key, and bleached to the point of almost seeming black-and-white in some shots.
  • Another skillfully directed sequence was when Simón showed Laura the treasure-hunt game. It had such a youthful, playful feel about it – a perfect example of style matching substance.
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2 responses

  1. Pingback: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) « The Analytic Critic

  2. Pingback: The Orphanage « HORRORPEDIA

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