Movie Review: The Orphanage

By Matthew Huntley

March 25, 2008

Are you my mummy?

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There is a scene so tense and unnerving in The Orphanage it reminded me just how effective the movies can be. I wouldn't dare give anything away, but the fear and anxiety it bestows upon its audience is the kind most horror movies could only dream of. What's even more remarkable is this film contains several such scenes, each with their own terrifying payoff. Because I see so many movies, I thought I might be impervious to being scared by them, but this one had me shaking.

The Orphanage (or El Orfanato as its called in its native Spain) belongs way up there next to Halloween, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby as one of the great horror pictures of our time. It is that good. And yet, it is a total genre picture. There's nothing wholly original about its story or its age-old tactics like slow tilts, high key lighting, creaking doors, off-screen sounds, loud crescendos, grotesque imagery. You know the drill.

But the difference between this and typical Hollywood horror fare is the way director Juan Antonio Bayona admires and respects his methods. His techniques are classic but effective, and he doesn't feel the need to mix in satire or humor to disguise them. Bayona directs practically and possesses a deep and natural instinct of knowing just how powerful simple sounds and images can be when they're utilized instead of simply used.

The plot: Laura (Belén Rueda) and her family have just moved into an old, decrepit mansion that used to be an orphanage. This is the same place Laura grew up until she was adopted, and now she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) are restoring it as a house for handicapped children. Laura and Carlos have a son named Simón (Roger Princep), whom they feel has an overactive imagination because he claims to have so many invisible friends.

One day, Laura takes Simón down to the beach, where the little boy wanders into a cave and begins talking to someone. Laura thinks it's just another "friend" but she grows suspect when she sees the elaborate treasure hunt his friends have set up for him, which leads Simón to sensitive information about himself. Either the boy is playing tricks on his mother or...

Things grow more eerie when Simón refuses to come downstairs during the welcome party for the new children. He'd rather play with his new friend Tomás in his secret playhouse. Next thing you know, Simón has gone missing and Laura is attacked by a creepy-looking child with a sack over its face. If any kid in the movies has ever been completely shuddersome, it's this "sack" child. What makes it even more chilling is the way Bayona films it from a distance. I think my spine was actually tingling.


The police are called but they can't find Simón's body. Laura, who's fierce and strong-willed, refuses to believe her son is dead. She thinks his disappearance may have something to do with a peculiar old woman named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), who unexpectedly showed up to the house claiming to be a social worker and started asking questions about Simón.

The Orphanage is the kind of film that must be seen with a limited amount of knowledge going in, so that's as far as I'll go with the plot. From here on out, I can only tell you what I thought about it, and I have nothing but praise.

Juan Antonio Bayona is a relatively young filmmaker, but The Orphanage immediately establishes him as a pro. His techniques have an ambitious energy that induce shock and fear; Bayona is relentless in the way he builds tension and lets it out ever so carefully, all without resorting to excessive gore or the usual horror cliches (there's no "oh, it's just a cat" moments). People suddenly appear in frames without warning; things move around inexplicably; and the plot, which progresses seamlessly from one point to the next, is one we actually care about and invest our hearts in.

I mentioned this is not the most original of horror films (it does derive from The Omen and The Shining, among others), but I still believe it to be one of the best directed films of 2007. Bayona keeps us involved in the story while still managing to generate a visceral and emotional response. Like his friend and master Guillermod del Toro, who executive produced and helped bring this film to the United States, it's clear Bayona simply loves the cinema, and when you love what you do, you're more likely to be good at it.

Ever since Scream (1996), the Hollywood horror genre has lost its edge. Even the last really good horror movie to hit theaters, The Descent, came from the U.K., suggesting foreign filmmakers are more willing to take the genre seriously and remember it can also be something for adults. Hollywood too often feels the need to only cater to attention-deficit teenagers, and so we end up with garbage like The Ring, Black Christmas and Disturbia. Foreign filmmakers are proud to see horror done right.

The Orphanage is not only one of the best films of 2007; it's also one of the best horror films ever made. It's on a whole other playing field than what American audiences are used to. The filmmakers and cast have reaffirmed my faith that the horror genre is still very much alive. This whole time I was looking for it in Hollywood when I should have been looking for it in other countries.



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