Monday, December 31, 2007

The Orphanage (2008)

The Orphanage is akin to Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone or even Pan’s Labyrinth, with a strong focus on characters and a highly stylized and terrifying storyline. Del Toro “presents” The Orphanage, so it is safe to say he has a keen eye for talent. Director J.A. (Juan Antonio) Bayona’s admiration for Del Toro shows in this film, but it never overshadows his own story. Instead, Bayona crafts an emotional, heartbreaking ghost story that is entirely his own.

Laura (Belen Rueda) was raised in an orphanage before being adopted. She has fond memories of playing with her friends there, so some 20 or so years later she decides to turn the long-abandoned building into a home for kids with special needs. Her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their cherub-faced son Simon (Roger Princep) join her at the beautiful sea-side mansion. Simon even makes some new friends, albeit imaginary ones that his parents cannot see.

Laura and Carlos dismiss these friends as just being a part of Simon’s imagination, but things soon start to take an ominous turn. An old lady who claims to be Simon’s social worker arrives to talk with Laura, but she is found late one night sneaking around the grounds. Soon after that, Simon disappears, seemingly into thin air, at a party thrown for the special needs children.

Months and months after his disappearance, Laura becomes convinced his “imaginary” friends have something to do with his disappearance and she stumbles upon a terrifying mystery that has lain dormant for far too many years…

The Orphanage is a very effective ghost story, one that’ll have you jumping out of your seat at all the right (and unexpected) moments. One thing that makes it work so well is the acting by the leads, especially Belen Rueda as Laura. Laura is an entirely sympathetic character, even when her husband Carlos suspects she may have gone a little batty. Her love for Simon is fathomless and she refuses to give up looking for him. Her passion and love for her son and family make us, the audience, want her desperately to succeed…which makes the ending that much more devastatingly heartbreaking.

The characterization of the characters is also spot on. Screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez does a spectacular job creating characters we care so much about, as well as crafting a solid story that has several twists and turns (and scares!) that I certainly didn’t see coming! The only place where the story falters is the middle of the film, where the action drags too much. The tense climax more than makes up for the slow middle, though, as does the séance scene that features one of the creepiest green-tinged night vision camera scenes ever!

Speaking of creepy scenes, director J.A. Bayona wisely keeps everything out of sight. There are no wispy apparitions haunting The Orphanage, but one very malicious child named Tomas, who wears a sack over his deformed face, who makes an unsettling appearance. Everything else is eerily implied (like the frightening séance scene), which, to me, makes a much better ghost story! It’s the noises, like the children’s cries and the loud bangs in the walls, that will scare your pants off, not what you see.

The cinematography, by Oscar Faura, is also spectacularly spooky. As the story progresses, the lighting seems to be getting darker and darker, with more time spent inside the old orphanage and its many musty rooms. Faura reflects the atmosphere of the story with his lighting and lensing of scenes, and that only adds to the already ominous tone.

The Orphanage is currently in a limited release, so if it is playing anywhere near you, I highly encourage you to see it. It may not be “the best ghost story since The Changeling” as some reviewers are saying, but it will definitely get under your skin and stay with you for days after viewing it. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking and genuinely scary film.

Available from Amazon!

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