“The Orphanage” – A.J. Hakari

Want to know the quickest way to add an extra layer of creepiness to Peter Pan? Turn Neverland into the afterlife, make the Lost Boys a band of spectral kiddies, and you’ve got yourself the Guillermo Del Toro-presented chiller The Orphanage. But don’t expect this picture to be filled with pirate battles and lovable pixies. The sort of territory that The Orphanage wanders into is less magical and more eerie, providing deep-running ruminations on childhoods lost that will stick with you long after you’ve bidden the multiplex farewell.

After being adopted 30 years prior, Laura (Belén Rueda) has returned to the orphanage in which she was raised. With her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and young son Simón (Roger Princep) in tow, she hopes to reopen the place as a home for children with special needs. But the clan has hardly had time to unpack before some peculiar things start to take place around their new digs. An elderly social worker (Montserrat Carulla) pops up out of nowhere and is later found trespassing on the grounds. Simón claims to have made six new friends, one of whom sports a ghastly mask in the drawings he makes of them. All of these spooky shenanigans culminate one fateful day when Simón disappears without a trace. While those around her suspect that her son is dead and gone, Laura isn’t so easily persuaded, each day bringing her closer to believing that not only are her son’s imaginary friends real, they’re of a supernatural origin, and the key to saving her boy lies in playing a complex game the ghostly tykes have set up for her.

Most horror movies are made for one reason and one reason alone, and that’s solely to try and scare viewers into jumping five rows back. Rarely if ever are these films anything other than reaction tests, so when a horror movie leaves you talking about something else other than the velocity at which a decapitated head sailed through the air as the credits roll, the occasion is a pretty special one. The Orphanage is in just such a position, working just as well as a dark and introspective drama as it does in helping you launch your popcorn into the stratosphere. Of course, the film emphasizes being the former more than it does the latter, so director J.A. Bayona isn’t so concerned with constantly dipping into his big bag of scare tactics. But I will say that when it applies itself, The Orphanage is as freaky as can be, from a couple of good jump scares to more quietly tense scenes, specifically a sequence in which a medium tries to contact the spirits living within the orphanage. Such moments call to mind The Changeling, another film that proved to be equally strong as both a dramatic piece and as one hell of a haunted house flick.

As I mentioned before, it’s as a drama that The Orphanage truly finds its thematic bearings. The film’s central mystery might not be that tough of a nut to crack for some, but its execution nevertheless comes across as elegant and intelligent, the script’s brains showing in the stirring connections made between Laura, Simón’s true background (which I’ll leave you to discover), and the orphanage’s otherworldly residents. Personally, these themes didn’t exactly hit me with a powerhouse force; this is a film I can admire and appreciate more than I can say I was truly affected by. But I can say that the potential to resonate with viewers is definitely present throughout The Orphanage, despite a conclusion that, while reasonable and not exactly a cheat, isn’t altogether satisfying. Still, Bayona must be applauded for constructing a downright chilling atmosphere that stays in place for the duration of the film, and Rueda’s very solid performance as Laura is filled with as much determination as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley or Naomi Watts’ heroine from the Ring movies.

If I could compare The Orphanage to any other movie, I would say that it’s quite similar in structure and atmosphere to Japan’s Dark Water. It has the feel of a particularly classy Asian horror film, one in which the dramatic elements work hand-in-hand with, God forbid, an actual story that’s told in a compelling manner. A remake of The Orphanage is already on the way, so head out and experience all of the dark wonders the original has in store while you still can.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

One Response to ““The Orphanage” – A.J. Hakari”

  1. margarita hendrickson Says:

    ‘Orfanato’ review Good–gives detail without giving away. I read Miami (Spanish) Herald’s review and yours is much more complete and insightful.
    I no longer go for scary films but am very curious about this one and plan to view it.

    Saw Woody’s “Cassandra’s Dream”–engaging– and I like it–although not as
    “finished” as “Match Point”–still I like it when I don’t figure out the ending.
    Spouse Thomas likes the Dostoevskian aspects in Cassandra (but I’ve read little of the
    OK, let you be. Congrats on your professional work. margarita hendrickson

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