The Orphanage

The Orphange, a Spanish film directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by Guillermo Del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth’s fame) is the best horror film i have seen for a very long time. And that’s saying quite a bit, as i had previously outlined my love for the horror genre and my disappointment at the lacklustre standards of scary flicks these past ten years or so

The Orphanage centres on Laura, an orphan, who decided to return to the orphange of her childhood memories, in a bid to set up a loving home for her husband, adopted child, Simon, as well as for other children with special learning needs.  What she doesn’t know was that a tragedy had occurred soon after her departure to an adoptive family and that the ghosts of the calamity would haunt both Simon and her with startling noises, mysterious disappearances, eerie treasure hunts and invisible friends.  Little Simon, led by his new pals, discovered what his parents had tried to keep from him, and soon after, disappeared. Was he kidnapped? If so, who did it? The old, strange social worker who had visited Laura earlier? His imaginary friends? Did he run away in a fit of pique? Is he even alive?

Stylistics-wise, the film was quite impressive. I love the opening credits, in which eager hands of unseen children tore apart printed wallpaper to reveal the people who contributed to the film. Very Del Toro-like, so it is no wonder that the film, at certain points in time, reminded me acutely of Pan’s Labyrinth, which i so much enjoyed. The director’s ability to use long shots and dim lighting added to the tense atmosphere- the audience has a bird’s eye view of the going-ons and watches as Laura frantically runs in, out, up and down the huge mansion, trying to recover her lost son.

Plot-wise, the film moved along at a good pace with plenty of spooky moments along the way. At the end of the journey, everything became clear. You walk out of the theatre knowing exactly what had happened. Every clue given throughout the movie counted towards understanding the film. There were few gory scenes- in fact, the only gory scene featuring a character killed by a moving vehicle stood out like a sore thumb. The ending of the film was bitter-sweet. It could have been terrible, but because of Simon’s pre-existing condition, it seemed like the happiest conclusion for Laura, Simon and the spectres of the orphanage.One wonders how the film would be like without Del Toro’s involvement at all. The Peter Pan theme and the treasure hunts seemed straight from Pan’s Labyrinth.

Acting wise, little Simon with his curly hair and heartrending innocence shone. Belen Rueda, complete with a perpetually tear-streaked bare face, was adequate as a desperate and frustrated mother fighting against the demons of her childhood and the scepticism of the people around her. There were times when i felt her acting strained though. Geraldine Chaplin, who appeared as a psychic for all of just 20 minutes, easily stole the show. Just watching her sent chills down my spine. The knowing psychic role scares me more than any grotesque spirit because these people know what we cannot comprehend and see what we do not. You can see fear and pain in their eyes, but they do their job anyway and then leave you with cryptic messages which you are supposed to decipher and then use to battle the other world. Oh God!

The Orphanage is like a good old horror flick in the vein of Carrie and the Exorcist. No outstanding special effects, just the good employment of sound, lighting, a good plot, the must-have characters (the mother who started off disbelieving and who finally believed, the child who sees the dead and of course, the medium) and solid acting to achieve the objective of scaring people. Unlike Sixth Sense and The Others, in which the ending came as a surprise, The Orphanage made use of twists along the way to culminate in a final resolution. Ultimately, the film touched. This, to me, is the most important essence of horror films which is sadly neglected- ghosts were afterall once human.  And I repeat, without a clear plot looking into the human motives of ghosts, a horror film will never be truly satisfying.


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