I’m a sucker for supernatural thrillers, and for the last couple of years I kept hearing about this Spanish film called El Orfanato (The Orphanage), the debut feature of director Juan Antonio Bayona, and produced by his good friend Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and soon, The Hobbit).
I finally got around to watching it, and admittedly, the hype is justified.
The Orphanage tells the tale of a woman who returns with her husband and son to her childhood home, an orphanage, which they intend to turn into a home for disabled kids. Needless to say, stuff happens. I don’t think it’s a premise I’ve seen before, but I’m sure it feels familiar.
Three things that tend to be common in ghost movies: big old house, weird noises and creepy children. The Orphanage ticks all three boxes, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s going to be a formulaic, predictable horror. The Orphanage is multiple notches above your average supernatural story for a variety of reasons.
First, the atmosphere is genuinely creepy. It’s a film that builds up the tension gradually, using a combination of eerie stories and spooky moments. It unsettles you, makes you feel uncomfortable. It rarely relies on the cheaps scares that plague horror films these days. There are also some clever tricks that I won’t divulge, but they are freaking terrifying. There are a couple of scenes in particular that are classics in my opinion, and they always give me chills when I think about them.
Second, you actually give a crap about the characters. Laura, the mother and the main lead, is exceptionally played by Spanish actress Belen Rueda. You feel her pain, her fears, and her desperation. Rueda makes her a flesh and blood, believable character you care about. The father, Carlos, played by Fernando Cayo, has less to do here, but he has his moments too in a subtle, controlled performance.
Third, it’s a great story! Given the premise I described above, it would have been easy for the film to collapse into your run-of-the-mill haunted house story, but there is so much more to it. There is mystery, intrigue, twists and turns, many of which I didn’t see coming.
In a way, The Orphanage shouldn’t even really be called a “horror” as that downplays the dramatic aspects of the film. I think the main reason the movie has done so well (won 7 Goya awards) is because of how emotional and heartbreaking it is, in a way you don’t expect horror movies to be.
Watch it before the obligatory Hollywood remake comes out! (New Line has already acquired the rights)
4.5 stars out of 5!