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Case Number 13475

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The Orphanage

New Line // 2007 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // April 22nd, 2008

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker once vacationed on the Island of the Lost Boys. He enjoyed the flight but found the donkey ears to be cumbersome.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Orphanage (Blu-Ray), published April 18th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

Seeing is not believing. It's the other way around.

Opening Statement

It's rare to find a "scary movie" that's aimed for adults, one that builds its scares through plot and characterization instead of quick scenes of gore. The Sixth Sense and The Others are two that tried, but their big selling points—"shock" endings—actually hobbled the story-telling.

The Spanish film The Orphanage is a ghost story in the way that The Innocents was a ghost story, a psychological drama with a supernatural basis.

New Line gives us a terrific release of this chilling film.

Facts of the Case

Laura (Belén Rueda, The Sea Inside) grew up in an orphanage until she was adopted at age 7. Thirty years later, she and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo, Con Game), purchase the building. They plan to live there with their 6-year-old son, Simón (Roger Príncep), as well as make it a home for special-needs children. Laura is looking forward to having the other children there, particularly for Simón, who is isolated in this new place and has no friends his age. The child has taken to creating imaginary playmates and involving them in elaborate treasure hunt games, and Laura and Carlos are starting to worry about the boy's grip on reality.

Simón's behavior becomes stranger, and on the day the children arrive—welcomed with a masquerade party—Simón fights with his mother, and she is later attacked by a child whose head is covered with a sack. Then Simón disappears.

When he doesn't turn up after several months, everyone—including Carlos—assumes he is dead, perhaps drowned in the nearby ocean.

But Laura refuses to believe he's dead. She is convinced he was taken "by his friends."

She believes the answer lies in the secrets of The Orphanage.

The Evidence

The Orphanage is a beautifully crafted film, suspenseful, moving, wonderfully acted and photographed, and directed with a sure-hand by Juan Antonio Bayona (his full-length theatrical debut). The film has a classic feel. Bayona doesn't resort to flashy editing tricks or an overmodulated soundtrack to tell his story. He masterfully creates a mood and atmosphere of intangible menace that is far more effective than the myriad jump cuts most films use to elicit fright.

Bayona lets the film unfold naturally—as "naturally" as is possible in a film involving the supernatural. There are no moments of forced exposition or long-winded, "in case you missed it" explanations. As the story develops, small, early scenes take on new and horrifying meaning—including references to Peter Pan—leading up to a genuinely spooky visit by a medium and a chilling, disturbing, yet satisfying, conclusion.

The Orphanage was produced by Guillermo del Toro, and with its themes of childhood fantasy and the horrors of the real-life, adult world, it makes an interesting companion piece to his earlier directorial efforts The Devil's Backbone and the brilliant Pan's Labyrinth.

The acting here is uniformly excellent, with a fine turn by Geraldine Chaplin (Cría Cuervos) as the medium and an outstanding performance from Belén Rueda as Laura. Rueda walks a line between strength and vulnerability and never succumbs to playing the clichés of either. With her large eyes and gaunt features, she looks haunted, on the edge in even her quiet moments. As the story progresses, we question her sanity, her reliability. Is she really aware of "forces" within the house? Has she bought into Simón's games about his unseen friends? Or is she merely a grieving parent, grasping at any straw to avoid facing the truth? To the film's credit, we are given no easy answers to these questions.

As Simón, Roger Príncep gives a performance wise beyond his years. Neither cloying nor artificially bratty, he is a believable, if strangely inscrutable, child.

New Line gives us a great package, with a near-perfect video transfer and excellent audio options. Although there is no commentary, we get a fine slate of extras. "When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage" is a very good, insightful behind-the-scenes featurette with comments from most of the cast and crew. "Tomás' Secret Room" is an umbrella title for a series of short features on the director, the composer, the art directions, the special effects (interestingly, not gore effects, but small elements that help enhance the mood), and the title sequence. We also get a featurette on the makeup and an interview with Bayona on working with the actors. Taken together, I prefer these featurettes to a commentary. They are specific to various aspects of the production and the participants don't carry the onus of filling a set-amount of time (the run-time of the film) or commenting on particular scenes that don't need further elaboration.

We also get trailers for both the American release (which positions this more as a violent horror film) and the Spanish release (which portrays it as a supernatural drama and emphasizes the film's tagline, "A love story, a horror tale").

The Rebuttal Witnesses

If you're looking for quick scares and gory thrills, look elsewhere. This is an eerie film of unsettling moments and growing suspense. Under Bayona's direction, the horror creeps on you. Things go bump in the night here; they don't jump out and eat somebody's face.

Closing Statement

Juan Antonio Bayona set out to make a classic, old-fashioned ghost story, and he succeeded. With its literate, intelligent script and deeply felt performances, The Orphanage is a rare film that's both frightening and moving and will stay with you long after the screen's gone to black.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 99
Audio: 99
Extras: 97
Acting: 98
Story: 95
Judgment: 96

Perp Profile

Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 6.1 ES (Spanish)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Fantasy
• Foreign
• Mystery
• Paranormal
• Suspense

Distinguishing Marks

• "When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage"
• "Tomás' Secret Room: The Filmmakers"
• "Horror in the Unknown: Makeup Effects"
• "Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read"
• Marketing Campaign
• Still Gallery


• IMDb
• Official Site

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