Want a good old-fashioned horror movie? The kind where excruciating tension gradually intensifies until it reaches one devastating climax? The kind where fear lurks behind every corner, behind closed doors, empty caves and hidden basements? The kind they don’t make any longer in Hollywood?
The Spanish hit “The Orphanage, one of the highlights of the Spanish section at this year’s film festival, is exactly that: A great gothic tale with first-class performances and unnerving atmosphere that ranks among the finest horror pictures of the decade.
Produced by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth, “Hellboy, “The Devil Backbaone ), “The Orphange bears the hallmarks of the great Mexican master. Director Juan Antonio Bayon shows confidence and rare maturity in his feature debut, a film that harks to “The Shining and “Don’t Look Now in themes and atmospheric setting.
Belén Rueda (“The Sea Inside ) plays Laura, a loving mother of seven-year-old adopted son Simon and the wife of a physician, who decides to buy the orphanage she was once an inmate in for five years, 30 years ago. Laura transforms the orphanage into a mansion and moves there with her family while taking in another group of orphans to be raised alongside Simon.
Simon is an imaginative kid who claims he has invisible friends, former residents of the orphanage, who divulge some truths his adoptive parents have kept away from him. Laura, who has mostly happy memories of her time in the orphanage, naturally doesn’t believe him, even when he reveals his knowledge of being congenital HIV positive.
On the day of the inauguration, Simon suddenly disappears. Laura believes that his invisible children have abducted him; that perhaps the old, peculiar social worker who showed out of nowhere the day before Simon disappeared might be involved in his disappearance.
Eventually, she employs a parapsychologist named Aurora (British veteran actress Geraldine Chaplin) who discovers secrets about the house which may or may not be true.
These are the basic plotlines you need to know about the film. If you’re intending to watch it, don’t scoop for more details. The less you know about the film, the scarier and more gratifying it will be for you.
“The Orphanage is abundant with twists and turns. Bayon doesn’t go for the easy scares, produced by the de rigueur sound effects, grisly images or exemplary villains. The film refuses to define or reveal its secrets until the very end. Up to the very last scene, you’ll keep wondering whether the mansion is indeed haunted, whether Simon is playing one of his games or if everything that’s happening is just figments of a heartbroken, desperate mother’s imagination, who might be going mad.
The overriding uncertainty and sense of loss owes plenty to Henry James’ classic novella “The Turn of the Screw. Bayon capitalizes on our fear of the unknown, of dark empty spaces and menacing silence, using subjective wide shots to maximize the impact. The mansion itself is a significant element, with its sea view, Catholic chapel and renaissance-era architecture ripped off from Edgar Allen Poe’s morbid tales.
The close-ups of Rueda s face are another primary ingredient of Bayon s palette. Bayon uses it to personify the fear and maximize its impact by blending it with Rueda s gush of emotions.
“The Orphanage is a story of grief, regret and possibility of salvation; of a tragic account of a mother s loss and her unyielding faith. In that retrospect, a film shares a kinship with M. Night Shyamalan s The Sixth Sense and Alejandro Amenábar s The Others.
And like those two, The Orphanage s ending suffers slightly from a lapse in logic. What s exceptional though about the piercing, heartbreaking final act is it doesn t resort to a major jolting twist. Instead, it raises more questions, forcing extremely tough choices on both the characters and the audience.
Like all great horror films, The Orphanage excels by showing as little as possible, directing the viewers imagination to secluded, petrifying landscapes without losing his tight grip on the story. Like Hitchcock s best works, The Orphanage is all about the timing, laying the ground for big scares, intensifying the characters emotions and enriching the story with secondary characters and subplots that renders the entire experience difficult to shake for some time.