The Orphanage
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Producers: Joaquín Padro, Mar Targarona, Guillermo del Toro, Álvaro Augustín
Starring: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 100 min.
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reviewed by Andrew James
      With the excitement and fervor over 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, it's no surprise that the studio releasing El Orfanato, aka The Orphanage, are really pushing Guillermo Del Toro's name along with the picture. Though he had nothing to do with the direction, that was left up to rookie, Juan Antonio Bayona, the style and tone of The Orphanage is still eerily similar to last year's Oscar nominated Pan's. It is dark and brooding with lots of darker hues and the feeling of a period piece, even though it isn't. It also explores some of the same themes as Del Toro's films (Pan's and The Devil's Backbone): childrens' imagination and the dark side that sometimes can come with it.

      The film takes place present day in an old, retired orphanage which is now occupied by a young couple planning on re-opening the building for a new group of orphans. The wife, Laura, was raised in the house and is excited about the prospect of it re-opening. The couple's young son, Simón, is a little apprehensive about the other children entering his life, but because there are no other children to play with in the area, his parents believe it would be good for him and it may mature his boyish habits (like being scared of the dark and having imaginary friends). As the time approaches for the new children to arrive, Simón becomes more and more insistent that his imaginary friends aren't imaginary at all and he grows more distant from his mother and arguments ensue.

      To make things more difficult, a creepy, old social worker shows up unexpectedly with questions about Simón and we learn that not only is he adopted, but he's also HIV positive and doesn't know either of these things. His parents keep this knowledge from him because they feel he's too young to understand the implications or to process the emotions. To make things weirder, the creepy, old lady is caught in the middle of the night snooping around the grounds. On the day the children are to arrive, Simón and Laura have an argument and by the end of the day, Simón is no where to be found. The rest of the picture is Laura's struggle to find her son who she's convinced has been kidnapped - probably by the social worker. As the story continues, Laura becomes more and more convinced that the ghosts of the children who once lived in the orphanage have returned and some sort of mystery must be unraveled if she has any hope of finding her son.

      This isn't a terribly graphic film at all. It's mostly a series of jump scares that I'm usually opposed to, but the mood that is set so well by everything else within the story that I didn't really seem to mind. Mind you, not everything in the movie is resigned to jump scares. There are several genuinely creepy moments scattered throughout the picture and one or two in particular might be strong enough to leave you sleepless for a couple of nights. What helps adds to the general creepiness is the location. Because the building is so old and is so secluded, it gives the feel of an older time period and as we all know, the older, the scarier. Even the costuming and props seem antiquated.

      Several sequences utilize a special and unique style to add to the mood. Whether it be worn and weathered film stock of deformed children or watching a medium exorcise the house through a series of low-resolution television monitors, the way in which we're deprived of ever seeing things as they actually are, gives the entire experience a welcome, new feel to the scare genre.

      The lead protagonist, Laura, is played exceptionally well by Belén Rueda. Her emotions run deep and we can see them streaming from her as the films wears on. At times gorgeous, at times appearing weathered and at times nearly glowing, Rueda takes a typical, "horror" film heroine and creates someone that we can not only relate to, but completely believe. Young Simón is also a bright spot. While it's historically difficult to find decent child actors, Bayona has found one that didn't seem fake or cheesy at any point. Kudos on that front. The rest of the characters are just sort of there to support Rueda as most (if not all) of the film is told from her perspective; and she makes the most of it.

     My only real problem was the lack of a tangible antagonist. While ghosts and the dread of the unknown can be scary (and they are), there are moments that seemed like it was supposed to be scary and just wasn't. There's an odd feeling of slight creepiness in the air, but in general these ghosts are of good natured children who aren't really scary in any sense. The final act wasn't all that gripping since I didn't have anything to attach my fear to. The story led us in that direction, but then didn't really deliver in the end. In fact, it's actually a pretty touching story in hind sight.

      Those that are creeped out by genuinely good ghost stories (like me) and not the usual gore and blood of a horror or slasher flicks should be on the edge of your seat throughout most of The Orphanage. Other films that it might follow in the footsteps of, include The Sixth Sense or White Noise. Take aspects of those and add Del Toro's influence to this new director and you've got a pretty good, stylistic thriller on your screen. I'm interested to see what Bayona can come up with in the future without Del Toro's obvious guidance. If he can sustain this sort of cinematic impact on his own, we're probably looking at the newest recruit to the "three amigos" director's club.

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