New Line // 2007 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 18th, 2008
A tale of love. A story of horror.
Another week, another horror film. They're being churned out left and right these days. However, this time there's reason to pay attention. The Orphanage is no ordinary horror film. In fact, it's one of the strongest horror films of the decade thus far. Let's examine the case.
The Orphanage tells the story of Laura (Belen Rueda, The Sea Inside), a happily married woman with a young adopted son (Roger Princep). Laura has a particular sympathy for orphans, in large part because she herself grew up in an orphanage. The orphanage of her youth has long since closed, but Laura and her husband (Fernando Cayo, Vida y color) have decided to give the place a fresh start. However, the building and it's former residents have a mysterious history, and supernatural elements are afoot.
At first Laura finds it cute that her son is playing with imaginary friends. As time passes, she begins to realize that her son either has a disturbingly overactive imagination or that his friends may be real. Just as Laura is beginning to find clues to this mystery, her son disappears. Days, weeks, months go by, and no one can find him. All seems to be lost, and everyone soon accepts the notion that the boy is dead. Everyone except Laura, that is. She knows her son is alive, somewhere, somehow. But where did he go? Did someone take him? What is the secret to his disappearance? Most importantly, to what lengths will Laura be required to go in order to get him back?
I'll be the first to admit that I'm no big fan of the horror genre. Not these days, anyway. Not in the era of Saw, Hostel, The Grudge and The Devil's Rejects, when we are receiving either lifeless Japanese remakes or repulsive displays of cruel brutality. We don't see too many horror movies that rely on suspense and craftsmanship for scares anymore; we live in an era of cheap shocks. It is not very often that a film in the league of Alien, Carrie, Jaws, The Exorcist, Halloween, or Rosemary's Baby comes along any more. Surprisingly, The Orphanage is a film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those aforementioned classics.
The Orphanage was produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who has directed some very good films in a similar vein such as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. However, the former was a ghost story, the latter was a fairy tale/fantasy, and neither really could be called a "horror" film. The Orphanage most definitely is a horror film, crafted in a style that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud. The movie implies things rather than explicitly showing them, makes menacing hints rather than shocking statements. It is a telling fact that the film is rated R for "disturbing images" and nothing else.
The film is very, very Spanish, and that is a good thing. There is a sense that we are in a supernatural realm with new rules; that the possibilities of what could be happening are a lot broader than what we are usually presented with in a horror film. There's a very impressive balance between the logical and the unexplainable, between the frightening and the touching, between the human and the supernatural. The film can tilt in any one of these directions at any moment, and we are always on our toes. The most uniquely Spanish element of the film (something it shares in common with Del Toro's Spanish-language films) is the darkly romantic tone, which offers hints of glorious beauty even in very cold moments. I find this refreshing, especially when contrasted with the grittier and less emotionally charged horror being made almost everywhere else.
The storytelling structure here is excellent, wrapping a lot of self-contained suspense set pieces into a larger story. Each set piece seems to serve a different purpose, providing a different piece of the puzzle. One may introduce an element that we continue to look for, one may open up new possibilities, one may close possibilities...regardless of purpose, each sequence is expertly staged by director Juan Antonio Bayona. Of these aforementioned sequences, one that really stands out is a nerve-jangling ceremony of soul-seeking hypnosis. Shot in dark, eerie greens and relying on a heavy of sound and visuals, it ranks as one of the most genuinely frightening scenes I have witnesses in a recent horror film.
2007 was a year that was sorely lacking a lot of top-drawer female performances, but Belen Rueda was one of the superb exceptions. She is excellent here, offering a remarkable portrayal of a woman just hanging a few inches above (or perhaps below) the brink of insanity. She is required to carry the majority of the third act by herself, and does a very good job of helping us understand the mindset of the character without using words. The other actors here are all good, but this is by all means Rueda's movie. The other characters (aside from the young son) are more or less only important in terms of their relationship to Laura. Speaking of Laura, I can only wonder if there's a little bit of symbolism there. Film fans will recall that the Otto Preminger film noir Laura was about a woman who had supposedly been killed but who was actually very much alive. Maybe it's a stretch of my imagination, but I do suspect there is a connection. You will know what I mean when you see the film.
The film looks excellent in 1080p, receiving a really terrific transfer. There are a lot of very deep, dark colors in certain portions of the film, and the level of clarity on this Blu-Ray version of the film is very impressive, indeed. If you purchase or rent the disc, note the quick two-second shot of a lighthouse about one hour and nineteen minutes into the film for an example of what I'm talking about. The sound mix is excellent, as well, which is very important. This is a film that relies heavily on sound for its effectiveness, and you're definitely going to be a little unnerved by the way this film uses sound and music (a terrific score by composer Fernando Velazquez).
The disc is not exactly packed with special features, but what we have is pretty good. Over the course of three making-of featurettes, which run for a combined 37 minutes, just about every single aspect of the film's making is addressed. The featurettes are short, but pack a very large amount of info into a short amount of time. One thing I found particularly interesting was the section on sound design, in which the director and composer mention their desire to keep atmospheric synthesizers (a popular element in modern horror films) out of the film, and focus on using more organic sounds. Everyone speaks Spanish in these featurettes, and they are subtitled, of course. There's also a brief look at rehearsals, several different trailers, and a still gallery.
For the most part, The Orphanage is a film of very few flaws. However, there is one moment when one it the movie's attributes turns into a liability. I mentioned earlier that I liked the romantic nature of the film. That is true, but I think it is carried just a little bit too far at the very end. The movie has a very strong climax, but I think that the final scene is entirely unnecessary. The movie should end on a bittersweet note, permitting audience members to decide for themselves how they feel about the situation. However, the final scene decides for us, pushing the film firmly into the realm of sweetness.
The Orphanage is a great horror film, and also a film that I think will only grow in reputation as it ages. It has that wonderful timeless quality which will make it just as effective some fifty years from now as it is today. Don't wait fifty years to see it, though... by all means, check out The Orphanage as soon as possible. If you have the option, I strongly suggest picking up this Blu-Ray version of the film, because it looks and sounds remarkable.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 6.1 Master Lossless Audio (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage"
* "Tomas' Secret Room (The Filmmakers)"
* "Horror in the Unknown: Makeup Effects"
* Still Galleries
* Rehearsal Studio
* Marketing Campaign
* Official Site