The Orphanage (El Orfanato)
Get that orphanage some color, fast!
Orphanages don't really exist anymore at least not in the traditional sense. When we hear orphanage, we think of a Dickensian-era building, filled with dirty children just hoping to be adopted by a wealthy family. Nowadays, there are group homes, foster parents, and other ways of adopting children. Movies and television, though, still like to portray orphanages in the a more traditional way. This works in favor of horror movies because it has been ingrained in our minds that orphanages are scary places. It's also a good excuse to have scary children.
The Orphanage (also known as El Orfanato) is a Spanish horror movie starring Belen Rueda as Laura. Produced by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth), the movie was written by Sergio G. Sanchez and directed by J.A. Bayona. Laura moves into the orphanage she grew up in along with her husband Carlos and adopted son Simon in hopes of helping out special needs children. While walking along the beach with his mother, Simon runs off into a cave and is seen speaking to someone who isn't there. He claims he is speaking to a boy named Tomas, but his mother dismisses this as just an imaginary friend. A social worker named Beninga Escobeda (Montserrat Carulla) arrives at the orphanage along with Simon's adoption file which says that Simon is HIV-positive. Angered at her intrusion, Laura kicks her out of the house. That night, Laura hears a sound outside, and finds Beninga in her shed, carrying a shovel. She escapes before Laura can stop her. The next day, Simon takes his mother on a scavenger hunt, supposedly done by his invisible friends. At the end of the game, he finds his adoption file and reveals to Laura that he knows he is adopted and and is going to die. During a children's party at the orphanage, Laura and Simon argue, causing Simon to hide. While searching for him, Laura is trapped in the bathroom by a boy in a mask with “Tomas” written on his clothes. She is freed by Carlos, but they are unable to find Simon. Six months go by with no clues as to Simon's whereabouts. Laura suddenly sees Beninga crossing the street. As she gets out to confront her, Beninga is hit and killed by a truck. It is revealed that Beninga used to work at the orphanage and has a deformed son named Tomas that she kept hidden beneath a sack mask. He was accidentally killed by the children when they stole his mask. Laura hears strange banging sounds in the house and other strange occurrences and contacts a medium to have a séance. The medium sees sick children in the house, but does not see Simon. Laura begins searching the orphanage, finding clues, leading to her shed where she discovers the bodies of the children who used to live at the orphanage. Laura recreates the original orphanage and hopes to contact the ghosts of the children so they can help her find Simon. Will it work or has Laura gone insane?
Gah! Kill it with fire!
The Orphanage was definitely not the movie I thought I was going to watch. I expected a movie somewhere along the lines of The Others or A Haunting In Connecticut. I thought this was going to be a scary ghost story where the orphanage was haunted by the souls of tortured children looking for revenge. That's not how the movie played out, but it was for the best. More emphasis is put on storytelling, character development, and solid acting than your typical ghost movie and it's hard to complain about something like that. The movie forgoes the usual scares and tricks which make it a better movie, but does make it less of a horror movie. There are scenes of general eeriness and the movie does leave the audience feeling uneasy, but it's due more towards the content of the story than any special effect or sound swell. This uneasiness reaches it's zenith with the movies incredibly depressing, but sort of happy ending. I liked it, but it was quite a bummer. There are plans to adapt this movie for an American audience and I don't expect that version to contain the same ending.
The movie is strong thanks to the great acting. Belen Rueda brings genuine emotion to her role as Laura causing the audience the share sympathy with her. The supporting cast compliments her well, but she is the true star. J.A. Bayona does a fine job directing with some good shots and an overall horror-style atmosphere that lead to some tense moments. The movie relies more on old-school atmospheric scares, which is a nice change of pace, but there should have been more. The story is good, but it had a few plot points that kind of bothered me. Unfortunately, I can't go into them or else I'd ruin the movie, but there were a few basic things that, in real life, would probably end the mystery a lot faster. Despite being a foreign movie, I never felt lost in any cultural differences, but did not feel catered to as an American viewer. That's far better than a foreign movie trying to be an American horror movie.
Knock, knock, knockin' on Heaven's door
The Orphanage is a good movie built around a good cast and film making. The story is decent, but did have a few flaws that stuck with me after the credits rolled. The movie lacked scares making it feel less like a traditional horror movie, but the focus is always more on the story than terrifying the audience. The sets look great and the scenery fits in well with the overall feel of the movie. You won't be terrified by The Orphanage, but you will be entertained.