Review: The Orphanage

by Wardog

Wardog is scared of children. And doors.
PhotobucketI generally don't get on with the horror genre. Either I'm not scared, in which the whole exercise feels a bit futile, or I am scared, in which case I'm scared and I don't enjoy feeling scared, even when I know it's all illusionary. So going to see The Orphanage was a pretty major deal for me; but after Pan's Labyrinth - which I absolutely adored - I'll pretty much give the benefit of the doubt to any film even remotely connected to Guillermo Del Toro. Although, in this instance, he is producing and backing the film, not directing it, his influence can be very strongly felt. The film self-consciously evokes the visual motifs and some of the themes of Pan's Labyrinth but, unlike that film, The Orphanage remains firmly rooted in its genre. This is not, per se, a bad thing. But The Orphanage, despite superficial similarities, is not another Pan's Labyrinth nor is it trying to be one. It's trying to tell an old-fashioned ghost story and it tells it bloody well.

The story begins with Laura returning, with her husband and (as we learn later) adopted HIV-positive son Simon, to the orphanage where she grew up in order re-open it as a home for children with special needs. Simon begins to discover peculiar imaginary friends in the empty old house and, following a series of bizarre events including the appearance of a mysterious, snuffling child in a horrific straw mask and a visit from a dodgy social worker, disappears completely. Despite a frantic and extensive police and media search no trace of Simon is found and, in a desperate attempt to get him back, Laura finds herself drawn into the games of Simon's imaginary friends.

The film is actually very scary, eschewing gore and violence for slowly building suspense and a couple of genuinely shocking moments that had the whole cinema jumping and crying out and then getting embarrassed and giggling as only the British can. For the most part it's all very understated, and horror is suggested rather than demonstrated by the gothic atmosphere of the orphanage itself, the paranoia-inducing camerawork that seems to suggest something is always just outside one's field of vision, and the soundtrack, which - except for its occasional deviations into dripping sentimentality - is excellent. It's an exquisitely put together film: it looks and sounds wonderful, and its use of open and enclosed space is arresting and imaginative. I have never been so terrified of doors in my life.

It's not without flaws - there isn't really time to develop the secondary characters which doesn't matter for the most part but it does mean that Laura's sceptical but supportive husband never feels fully realised. And because his thematic role is important (every ghost story need a sceptic), his lack of substance detracts from the overall effectiveness of the story. And there's a lengthy sance scene that, despite the general rockingness of Geraldine Chaplin, feels a bit self-indulgent as well as problematising (in a bad way) the relationship between reality and the supernatural in an otherwise delicately balanced film.

Although I said in my introduction that the film was primarily a ghost story, there is no "just" about this claim. Like most effective ghost stories it explores numerous dark and melancholy themes - loss, memory, growing up (or not), death, maternal love and belief to list a random handful - and the reason it chills and horrifies so successfully lies in its handling of them, and an utterly believable, utterly sympathetic performance from Beln Rueda as Laura. It's a wonderful film, at once an intelligent and compassionate exploration of the duel enigmas of parenthood and death and a genuinely creepy and disturbing horror film.








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