The Orphanage

orfanato.jpgstarring Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo and Roger Príncep
written by Sergio G. Sánchez and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
rated R for some disturbing content.

Some 30 years ago, Laura (Rueda) was an orphan living with other parent-less children in a large house in the country. Then she was adopted, moved away, and she never looked back. Now, with a husband and adopted son (Simón) of her own, she has purchased the old house that used to be an orphanage and hopes to reopen it as a home for handicapped children. But amidst the turmoil of moving in and preparing for the new arrivals, strange things begin to happen which may have some very sinister consequences for Laura and her family.

Much has been made in this film’s marketing of one particular person’s involvement: renowned Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who produced the movie. I know very little about how large a part the producer may play in the authorship of any given movie, but there are certainly touches in The Orphanage which seem distinctive, particularly in the overall look of the film. The location is perfect, both in the appearance of creepy majesty and in the potential its layout offers for storytelling purposes. The sound in particular is fantastic. The old house creaks and groans magnificently, and as for the old merry-go-round in the yard . . . if I heard anything on my property make a noise like that, I would drop everything and run for the WD-40.

Belén Rueda is excellent as Laura, truly standing out among performances which are largely competent placeholders for a story that is really built entirely around her. She and the house (the other important character) play very well off of each other. They have a sort of chemistry, you might say. Rueda really feels like she is a part of her surroundings, which goes a long way towards mitigating choices which make less sense than they ought to (such as the ubiquitous, “Why must she rush to investigate every scary happening alone?”).

Environs aside (though they are a very important element), The Orphanage is a fairly standard ghost story, employing many of the usual elements: the scary children, the psychic consultation, the horrifying event from the past, the slow revelation of decades-old secrets brought to light. I hope that cataloging those sorts of things doesn’t make it seem that I’ve given anything away, but stories such as this one are less about plot details and more about evoking a sense of overwhelming dread.

In this respect, at least, The Orphanage succeeds thoroughly. There were long stretches of time during which I was truly terrified, and one or two moments which nearly propelled me straight out of my seat. These were not cheap “jump” moments of the sort which pervade the American slasher genre, but rather the deeper and more lasting frights which allow my imagination to play havoc with the rest of me. This is where The Orphanage excels for most of its runtime, despite a few missteps (the psychic scene was far too stagy, for instance).

Ultimately, however, it drops the ball. Unfortunately, a chilling and fairly brilliant denouement happens about 10 minutes before the movie actually ends, and the filmmakers slip in an out-of-place finale that fairly reeks of overwrought sentiment. Worse yet, it simply shows too much, like a magician ending his act by revealing the rather unimpressive secret behind that amazing final trick. The lackluster ending doesn’t really spoil the rest of the movie, but it impoverishes the quality of after-movie reflection and deadens the impact of its own terror.

One final note: It should be obvious to anyone who’s paying attention, but this film is in Spanish and is actually titled “El Orfanato.” I happen to love the way Spanish sounds, and really enjoyed this element of the film (though I am, of course, biased, since I speak the language). In any case, I’ve never really minded reading subtitles, and it is certainly preferable to the alternatives: 1) dubbing or 2) not seeing any films made by non-English speakers. However, there was a large sign over the register informing me that the movie was in Spanish with English subtitles when I purchased my ticket, and just in case I missed it, the girl who sold me my ticket made sure I knew.

It reminded me of a story my brother (who worked in a video rental store) once told me. A customer brought Pan’s Labyrinth up and Brett happened to mention that it was in Spanish. “It is?” the young man replied, clearly a bit put out. “Is that legal?” . . . If a person who speaks two languages is bilingual and a person who speaks three is trilingual, what do you call someone who only speaks one language?

An American.

~ by Jared on January 11, 2008.

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