Title: El Orfanato (The Orphanage)
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona; “Presented” by Guillermo del Toro; starring Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, and Roger Príncep
In between all the basketball this weekend, I finally got a chance to watch this movie. El Orfanato is a Spanish horror movie that was released in Europe in October 2007, but just recently made it’s release in the USA in January 2008. The DVD hit stateside on April 22 and features English subtitles. The film is “presented” by Guillermo del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy fame), as he co-produced this full-length film debut from director Juan Antonio Bayona.
It begins with a children’s game. A little girl’s voice floats across the sunny frame, “One, two, three, knock on the door”…the children run, laughing, chasing each other across a lawn in a game of tag, while an older woman looks on from the porch of a beautiful manor. She receives a phone call, and we learn that the little girl with the singsong voice, Laura, will be leaving shortly–the beautiful house with the smiling children is an orphanage.
Years later, Laura returns to the orphanage with her husband, Carlos, and their adopted son, Simón. Laura and Carlos have purchased the old building, with plans to renovate it and reopen the orphanage, taking in children with disabilities or illnesses. Shortly after they arrive at their new home, Laura takes Simón for a walk, to show him her old haunts–they stroll on the beach, and Laura shows her son the cave where she and her friends used to play. Simón runs in, thrilled and eager to explore, while Laura stays outside collecting shells. When it is time to leave, Laura calls out for her son, but he does not answer. She ventures into the cave to find Simón talking to someone–his new friend Tomás. Later that evening, Simón draws a picture of his new friends (he has six of them), and explains that Tomás always wears a mask. Chalking it up to an overactive imagination, Laura believes that Tomás and the rest of them are imaginary, but plays along with her son.
Then, strange things start to happen. There is the mysterious social worker, Benigna, who lurks around the property. There is the strange scavenger hunt game that leads Simón to a chilling revelation. When the house is finally restored, and Laura and her family host a party for the children who will be moving in, she sees a small boy, wearing a mask that looks an awful lot like Simón’s picture.
And then Simón vanishes.
Laura is terrified, and throws herself into finding her missing son, through any means possible. She refuses to believe he is dead, and goes on a haunting journey of her own.
El Orfanato is not so much a horror movie as it is a drama. It is a ghost story, but more along the lines of The Others or The Innocents than The Amityville Horror. There are moments of true horror, but they are of a psychological nature rather than the shock of blood or cheap pop-out-at-you scares. Juan Antonio Bayona does a bang up job with the direction and the visuals–it is the dark, atmospheric quality of the film that chills and lingers, even after the last frame of the movie. The performances from each of the characters is impeccable–especially from Belén Rueda as Laura, and Roger Príncep as Simón. Nicole Kidman’s much ballyhooed performance in The Others cannot hold a candle to Belén Rueda’s Laura–unlike Kidman who has the annoying tendency to over-empathize breathlessly, Rueda’s performance as Laura not only exudes sympathy, but strength too. The interactions between Laura and Simón felt incredibly genuine.
The plot, while it draws on every convention in the book, is painstakingly intricate, and powerful. Like Simón’s scavenger hunt, the audience is held captive in the child’s game, reaching from one clue to the next, until the final heart rendering conclusion. It is a shame that there aren’t more ghost stories or haunted house movies–but when one fantastic movie of this caliber comes along, I appreciate it all the more.
Verdict: Definitely a keeper. I am buying this movie for my DVD collection, and highly recommend for everyone.
Rating: 8 Excellent–and I cannot wait to see more from this director.