Real terror at the heart of The Orphanage

by Glen Baity

Ever since I saw The Shining, with its weirdo twins triking down the cavernous hallways of the Overlook Hotel, creepy kids have been my Achilles heel.

I’m generally fine in horror movies, but toss in a pale, sunken-eyed toddler humming a feeble rendition of “Ring Around the Rosey” and I go a little wobbly. Bonus points if there’s more than one, double if they’re wearing matching outfits.

So a horror movie called The Orphanage? Yeah, that oughta be safe.

This little Spanish-language wonder comes to US soil courtesy of Guillermo Del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and its upcoming sequel). Though his role here is limited to a producer credit, fans of Pan’s Labyrinth will recognize and welcome this film’s similar tone.

The story centers on Laura (Belén Rueda), a middle-aged mother who spent her childhood in the titular orphanage. She returns to the grand, empty old house in her adulthood with the intention of turning it into a home for sick children. Along with her are husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted son Símon (Roger Príncep), himself in need of special medical care.

It shouldn’t surprise you that strange occurrences, both in the orphanage and in a nearby beach cove, point to a chilling truth: that bad, bad things happened at the orphanage after Laura left it as a young girl. When Símon goes missing, his mother has to delve deep into the past for clues to his whereabouts.

On its face, The Orphanage is as conventional a haunted house story as you’re likely to find: A family moves in to an old house, bizarre things begin happening and the house’s turbulent history is revealed in small pieces. Despite the common elements, however, not all haunted house yarns are created equal, and The Orphanage is the best I’ve seen in a while. This is due largely to the way it gets its scares, which will be alien to you if you’ve been living on a steady diet of Rob Zombie horror for the past few years. Nobody here is chained to a radiator and forced to saw off a limb; no co-eds are stalked or otherwise terrorized; nobody gets raped and murdered on-camera, crying and screaming for mercy.

That it is almost completely devoid of blood and gore is, oddly enough, one of the film’s more shocking aspects, and the one or two scenes where graphic violence occurs on-screen are all the more startling because of it. This is a film that doesn’t assume you’re desensitized to images of brutal violence, which is one of the things I most appreciate about it. The horror here is implied, allowing the viewer’s imagination to run wild in ways an Eli Roth picture never would. And even in this day and age, imagination trumps special effects 10 times out of 10.

That’s not to say the viewer isn’t subject to a little creative suggestion. Director Juan Antonio Bayona relies heavily on sounds to establish the film’s atmosphere. Everything in the old house creaks, strange pounding noises rise through the floors at all hours and every square inch seems to be breathing in unison. None of which should take anything a way from the film’s excellent direction and cinematography, which isolate the viewer in a claustrophobic, four-walled world.

Bayona keeps the tension levels high and culls excellent performances from Rueda, Cayo and Príncep. The Orphanage packs in the scares, but couches them in a surprisingly engaging story that takes a few unexpected turns. Certain plot points may feel a little too familiar, but that’s easy to look past with execution this good.

And a final note, at the risk of sounding snobby: New Line has already given the green light to an English-language remake of the film, which will almost certainly be inferior and/or star Jessica Alba. So do yourself a favor and send a message by giving this incarnation your money instead.

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