DVD The Orphanage
The Orphanage is an atmospheric, psychological horror debut by former music video director Juan Antonio Bayona. Produced by renowned Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage benefits from an imaginative visual style that is fast becoming the norm for modern Spanish cinema. The film is reminiscent of an M.R James morality-driven ghost story, taking its protagonists on a nightmarish journey to a macabre, nihilistic conclusion.
Laura and her husband Carlos purchase the orphanage where Laura was raised, with the benevolent intention of founding a care home for disabled children and their own son, Simón. Simón is an imaginative but lonely boy, seeking companionship with his increasingly numerous imaginary friends. Carlos and Laura hope that Simón will begin to come out of his shell when the orphanage reopens its doors and the house is filled with children once more.
As his parents become increasingly distracted with preparations for the facility’s opening, the lonely Simón regresses ever further into his fantasy world. His ‘friends’ begin to take on a sinister aspect, however, when Simón discovers information about himself and his parents that he could not possibly have unearthed on his own. Armed with this distressing knowledge, Simón and Laura’s relationship grows increasingly fractious, exacerbated by the appearance of an intruder in the family’s grounds.
The hopeful parents hold an open day for the new facility, showcasing themselves and the building to prospective families. The day turns into a disaster, however, when Laura realises her son has disappeared. Fearing the worst, police divers search the cove facing the property, but no body is recovered.
Laura is convinced that Simón has been abducted, and with the help of the police, begins a wild search for the intruder of a few nights previously. With little hope of success, the couple’s search for their son takes an unlikely turn when Laura is given reason to believe their house is haunted. Their investigation reveals that the woman, Benigna, was mother to a deformed child who was bullied into a fatal incident by the former denizens of the orphanage, and took terminal revenge on the children responsible.
Laura’s progress in the investigation becomes an obsession, and she is convinced that the answer to her son’s disappearance lies with the tormented spectral children. A sinister cat-and-mouse game ensues, as Laura begins to unravel the mysteries of her new home, the intentions of the ghostly orphans and the fate of her missing son…
With the successes of J-horror movies and their remakes, other oriental imports, like South Korea’s chilling A Tale Of Two Sisters, and the consistent output from Spain, it’s not surprising that psychological horror films are undergoing something of a welcome resurgence of late. The market has been saturated with the Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek ‘torture porn’ brand of horror for too long, and it’s refreshing to see films that are engaging the mind as opposed to assaulting the senses.
Right from the off, The Orphanage creates an almost palpable sense of tension and threat. The score is terrific, and this, combined with the film’s brooding, ominous locations, conspires to get the heart beating within minutes. The script is both chilling and original; the malevolent omniscience of Simón’s ‘imaginary’ friends is truly disturbing, and the plot throws up some neat little set pieces to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. When Laura engages a psychic to aid her in the investigation, the resulting use of fixed-camera, surveillance style footage is terrifying in what it leaves to the viewer’s imagination, rather than what is shown explicitly.
Alongside the more conventional horror storyline, The Orphanage is also an acute and affecting melodrama.
The camera work maintains a consistent level of ingenuity; succeeding in being artistic without detracting from the film’s realism. In a recurring motif, Laura is forced to engage in a children’s game similar to ‘Statues’ (one, two, three, knock on the wall), where the children attempt to sneak up on a nominated player while their back is turned. The audience is left in an agony of suspense while Laura tempts the phantasmal children into coming out of hiding, the camera panning in turn from her position by the wall to the open dormitory door in an oh-so-patient long take. The result is almost unbearably tense.
Alongside the more conventional horror storyline, The Orphanage is also an acute and affecting melodrama. Belén Rueda is fantastic as Laura; her want for her missing son is brutally palpable, and the slow disintegration of her relationship with Carlos is heartbreakingly inevitable. The two storylines complement and enhance one another; the poignancy of the film’s denouement is more emotive because it is so nightmarish, likewise the film is more terrifying for being emotive. Bayona has struck a fine balance, giving what would have been a very successful horror film in its own right an extra element of pathos.
The film isn’t perfect. There are some plot holes, and character motivations, most notably and perhaps most crucially those of the phantom children are sometimes hazy. Furthermore, Carlos’ involvement throughout the film is curiously marginal – as a character, he is underwritten and almost surplus to requirements. It would take a monumental degree of jaded detachment to notice these foibles in a single viewing, however; the pervading sense is far more likely to be one of sympathetic terror as you accompany Laura’s quest to uncover the awful secrets surrounding her house’s history, and the dire consequences for her family’s future.
The Orphanage is the thinking man’s horror film. By avoiding the claret and instead sculpting a story that speaks to the most fundamental of human emotions, Bayona has succeeded in crafting a film that is both horrifying and deeply affecting.
See The Film For Yourself!
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