Review: The Orphanage (El Orfanato)

Posted by Peter Hall - January 15th 2008 @ 8:24 pm

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007
Written by Sergio G. Sánchez

The Orphanage Poster

I lost a lot of money today. For me a hitherto unprecedented amount of money. Not quite, “I’ll put that in my mouth for $5 so I can eat tonight” kind of money, rather “Fuck Apple stock, shots all around!” kind of money. But you know what? Who cares? That is how much I enjoyed The Orphanage. One little Spanish horror picture strong enough to numb the pain, at least until the market takes another nose dive tomorrow.

I’ve read in multiple places that people are misled by two things regarding The Orphanage; 1) “Presented by” Guillermo del Toro means it’ll be like Pan’s Labyrinth and 2) It is not a horror film. These are both lies. One, it is nothing like Pan’s Labyrinth; it is better. Two, it is most definitely a horror film. Were it made 45 years ago, mark my words The Orphanage would have surpassed Psycho in horror prestige. Juan Antonio Bayona’s film is all class, all heart, all ventricle’s in full dilation horror. Were it, indeed, made 45 years ago, talking heads in Top 100 countdowns would be citing a variety of the film’s scenes as staples of horror highs, it would already have been on the remake chopping block and fans everywhere would be complaining that a classic had been raped.

Instead of being born into the world of Hitchcock, the “Twilight Zone” and Vincent Price, The Orphanage shed its placenta in a landscape of cheap thrills, border pushing gore and paper clip scripts. This wonder does not belong in the year 2007. It belongs in the black and white era. It belongs in the hearts and minds of a generation that can see horror in the spook house, not a generation that correlates Hostel with an opening weekend of $19.5 mil.

In short, Laura returns to the orphanage that housed her to raise Simon, an adopted son of her own, with her husband Carlos. Simon, an unfortunately sickly child, spends his time interacting with imaginary friends before learning that Laura is not his biological mother and, as a reaction, vanishing. The months proceeding Simon’s disappearance are plagued by strange sightings and the loudest house settling noises ever put to film. Laura, hellbent on at least discovering what happened to Simon, does everything possible to solve the mystery while those around her just want to let the past be past.

Smooth and never simple, Sanchez’s script, though not as lean as one might wish, is a cutting tale of the terror of loss. Belén Rueda , the film’s heaviest anchor, embodies a scary amount of hope and temerity. An ultimate crusading mother who boldly goes chin to chin with a threshold of terror that will, again and again, inspiring more moments of “Damn, girl, don’t go in there!” than any film in recent memory. Rueda, who brings an alarming amount of unexpected beauty to the role, is the axis on which the rest of the film revolves. One could argue this is detrimental, as not enough time is given to Carlos or other supporting characters, but considering the script is about her and, ultimately, no one else I cannot complain. Plus she gives the genre performance of the year, hands down.

Juan Bayona must have lorded over his immense set(s) like the eye of Sauron, scouring the lands for optimal routes to building scares. Textbooks should feature chapters on the sequence in which Laura allows a medium to explore the house. Never before has such mounting fear been based almost entirely on sound and surveillance cameras. The entire production has tremendous sound editing, which one may assume has been up to par in the genre as late until you see (hear) that The Orphanage went to the course behind everyone’s back and re-qualified what that par is.

The film clocks in at a comparably small 104 minutes, but it could stand to tighten up another 10 or 15 in editing without significant loses to mood or build. The first half is a controlled burn, but the terrifying excitement of the snowballing climax out paces the rest of the film. Even still, The Orphanage is one for the record sheets. Not only would I place it in any top horror list for 2007, I’d place it high in an all-genres inclusive list for ’07. If, and this is a big if considering the current small amount of theaters rolling these heart pounding reels, El Orfanato comes by your way in early ’08, please seize the opportunity. If not, know full well this site will let you know several times when the DVD is coming out. This is top shelf, ageless, haunted-house horror.

comments are closed
  1. January 15th, 2008 | 9:01 pm | #1

    Fantastic review, man. God, I wanna see this more than EVER now . . . .


  2. Walrus
    January 16th, 2008 | 3:53 pm | #2

    Children are terrifying

  3. January 18th, 2008 | 11:43 am | #3

    “The Orphanage” sounds great. Will it be released in Canada any time soon?

  4. January 18th, 2008 | 6:32 pm | #4

    Doesn’t look like it, sorry. I was hoping that a possible Oscar nomination would put it in more theaters, but it did not make the ‘short list’ cut for Foreign Language films.

  5. Matt W
    January 19th, 2008 | 4:45 pm | #5

    Good review. I couldn’t agree more. Although the one thing I loved about this movie, is how the sound(s) made the scenes. How there wasn’t a whole lot to be afraid of, but as you put it, the “loudest house settling noises ever put to film”. Very little of the scares were cheap as well. During the medium scene I was honestly squinting my eyes, weary of the figure that I was damned sure would jump out at the screen (as two decades of horror movies told me would happen.)

    I guess some people would complain about such scenes, but I just found the use of setting and sound to completely engulfing. I’m honestly shocked this was rated R, as there was only one thing that was disturbing, and that was the *honk honk* scene. But, that just tells me they didn’t water anything down for a PG-13 rating, which they easily could have. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the lack of cursing in the movie, not good or bad, just a rarity in a horror movie ya know?

    I’m not sure how much stock to put into this website but it would appear this movie is already scheduled for a remake….your comment on people complaining how the movie was butchered will more than likely happen after all Peter.

  6. December 20th, 2009 | 11:42 pm | #6

    Good review and agree with your view. The Orphanage is one of my top 10 films and easily one of my top horror films. Expertly made, beautifully acted and emotionally draining. A stunning piece of film-making and great psychological horror that works on just about every level.

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