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The Orphanage Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 19, 2008

  • Movies review

    1,857

    The Orphanage Review
    Just a month before its US Blu-ray release (which I'll be covering too, in much more detail!), Juan Antonio Bayona's directorial debut The Orphanage gets a theatrical outing in the UK. Having already played very successfully at several film festivals around the world, including a rapturous reception in London, it is rapidly garnering quite a name for itself ... and, for once, it is extremely pleasing to report that all this praise and adulation is actually completely warranted for Bayona has crafted a gem amongst a genre that has, for quite some time, been the province of Asian cinema. Well now, with Alejandro Amenabar's The Others, Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, it seems as though the Spanish are moving in on the supernatural stage with icily insidious fingers. Del Toro actually produced The Orphanage and, watching it, you can see his shadow looming large over the project like some spectral mentor. But this is not simply a case of the more famous filmmaker pulling strings in the way that Spielberg did on Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, for Bayona has a definite vision of his own and a wryly assured manner of putting it up there on the screen. Having really only helmed music videos before this, you could be forgiven for assuming that his first feature would be flashy but shallow, merely an excuse for elaborate tricks and rapid editing, and the result instantly forgettable. Yet the young director maintains a serious and mature outlook on the subject, a keen eye for build-up, pacing and pay-off, and, best of all, a knack for coaxing great performances from his cast that elevate what is, admittedly, a none-too-original spook story into something that is fascinating, petrifying and acutely memorable.

    Laura (Belén Rueda) moves, with her husband Carlos (Fernando Caya) and young son Simone (Roger Princep), into the gothic coastal orphanage that she, herself, was brought up in with intentions of re-opening it to care for disabled and disfigured youngsters, just like it did in her day. But the ghosts of the past have a habit of walking its halls, visiting her and unravelling a former life that she seems happier to have forgotten. When Simone, who has problems of his own, feels the influence of the rambling place he begins to act strangely - playing with invisible friends and drawing pictures featuring a disturbing character whose image nags at Laura's faltering memory - and then, during a masked garden party that Laura throws, a ghastly figure hidden beneath a sack-cloth-and-button mask appears to terrorise her and ultimately an agitated Simone goes missing. When the police and their own investigations turn up nothing except blasts from the past that only increase Laura's anxieties, the film begins a deliciously dark unpeeling of the layers that cloak the history of the orphanage. And it seems that the key to finding Simone lies uncomfortably at the heart of the building's mysterious past.

    With demented old ladies cropping up unexpectedly, a psychic (played by Charlie Chaplin's own daughter, Geraldine Chaplin) probing the secret wounds of the orphanage and Laura becoming steadily more plagued by inexplicable happenings, Bayona's film (from a screenplay by Sergio G. Sánchez) ventures bravely into the unknown with rarely a single mistep. The fragile hinterland of haunted pasts and unspoken atrocity has been revisited many times. Indeed, this is the rare province of the traditional old dark house story. But this is also grown-up horror - the type of tale that needs no blood, no graphic murders and no dazzling pyrotecnics to cast its spell. And, watching it unfold, it is hard to believe that Bayona hasn't been peddling this standard for years. His attention to detail and character - even the supporting cast have huge presence and relevance - is utterly superb and his maintenance of mood is second to none, rising in tone and urgency with drip-feed relentlessness.

    Having said that, though, there are still panderings to the conventional vogue. Laura may not be the scantily-clad, smart-ass heroine that Hollywood would have thrust into the narrative, but Bayona is still not quite above the formulaic scene of a lone woman going to investigate strange nocturnal noises in a creepy old house - or rather in the splendidly bone-chilling grounds that surround it - but at least he achieves some startling results as a consequence. This concession to the norm is all the more forgivable with the fact that Belén Rueda wears Laura's emotions and anxieties so credibly and sympathetically. Born in 1965, the Spanish actress is a new face to me, but she is strikingly attractive one minute and convincingly harassed and distressed the next. That we are initially on her side is a given. But the way in which we also come to doubt some of her intentions and even begin to suspect that she may be losing her marbles whilst still being enormously sympathetic to her plight reveals an actress of great depth and sincerity. She brings a sort of Rosemary's Baby/Mia Farrow-esque suspicion into play the more the plot progresses, with the paranormal team stepping in to investigate and Carlos' hopelessness stymieing her crusade, albeit with a more visceral impact. I hope to see more of her on the international circuit now that The Orphanage has brought her and her director to a wider audience.

    Whether or not this ghostly sub-genre of dark humanity-meets-fatalistic-fantasy is a purely Spanish thing is up for debate. But there certainly appears to be a trend for stories involving emotional, physical and psychological purging coming out of the country's fable-makers. The closet thing that we have to this, of recent times that is, is Shane Meadows' excellent Dead Man Shoes, with its similar tale of dark deeds, hidden truths, frightening redemption and heartbreaking denouement.

    Fantastic camerawork flexes the ominous skies around the imposing structure of the orphanage, DOP Oscar Faura taking his cue from the incredible bending of form and landscape that Daniel Pearl achieved with Texas Chainsaw Massacre magnificent juxtaposition of structure and scenery. His wide-angle compositions are profoundly cinematic, utilising cunning perspectives - looming foreground object dwarfing immaculately framed far-off subjects, for example - and vast exterior shots that bring a scope to the film that haunted house movies don't often possess. Just look at the wonderful tracking shots that he delivers - Laura sitting in contemplation on the steps of the orphanage as the camera cruises steadily around her, for instance. The influence of Robert Wise's seminal spook-fest The Haunting is strongly apparent, but Faura and Juan Antonio Bayona are no mere plagiarists. The template may have been created with Wise's towering achievement in stark, moody black and white, but the Spanish heirs to the throne use colour and a deeper sense of shading like master craftsmen, weaving their imagery across the screen. Check out the scenes set in the rocky cave creeping in from the yawning expanse of beach - Simone's early torch-lit investigation amid the Stygian blacks and the later frightening shock-cut appearances of a figure in its wave battered mouth - to see how the makers concoct a visual symmetry that is stylish yet intricately emotional as well. The drama may well be introverted, close-knit and claustrophobic, but the tension that is wrought about is lent grandeur via the superlative photography. The film feels big in the same manner that The Others, before it, seemed able to wrap-around you and draw you into the house, its sheer size a pictorial chasm of shadow, depth and heightened reality. The only elements that I didn't think worked too well - a frantic race through the surf and some unnecessary editing during a montage set during the build-up to the finale - are forgivable as they are merely slight stylistic indulgences that don't quite gel with the overall visual scheme. Otherwise, the film is a studied and meticulous production in every department that simply drips with class and maturity. Even the muted, overcast shading of the colour palette matches the mood of the piece - under-pressure, clouded with ambiguity and emotionally turbulent.

    The requisite shocks may not be all that original, but they are tremendously effective just the same. The double-jolter early on in the shed is an excellent example of the cleverly orchestrated stinger, its two-fold whammy - insidiously, Bayona's direction and Faura's exemplary camerawork deliver another jump the very instant that you have returned to your seat after the first one - a sure-fire trouser-filler. A couple of later ones have such a lurching out-of-the-blue quality that you may well receive whiplash. The sound design is incredibly creepy and the cloying frisson of something loitering just out of sight watching you is never less than neck-bristlingly tangible. Both counterpoints are brought into full effect with the tour de force sequence in which Laura watches a bank of monitors revealing what Chaplin's medium is seeing as she does the walk of terror through the orphanage. Shot with eerie night-vision, the set-piece ranks as one of the most gripping that I've seen in a horror film over the last few years with sound and image both having their moments of spine-tingling glory. But Bayona isn't finished there. Watch for a cute childhood game that becomes a ritualistic nightmare when recalled for a spiritual summoning session. Or the trail of clues that lead Laura to some horrifying discoveries. But it is the simple things like doors closing - they don't even have to slam shut - behind someone that chip away constantly at the nerves, or the creak of the old childrens' merry-go-round out in the garden. A soothing bedtime conversation even becomes a moment of throat-freezing terror when realisation regarding whom Laura has been speaking to suddenly dawns Flitting shapes and feverish giggling from the shadows become Bayona's weaponry during the final shocking act and he wields them majestically, his movie packing so much supernatural chaos that it positively out-creeps most other horror films circulating at the moment, put together.

    The music from Fernando Velázquez is truly wonderful, as well. Again, much like The Others, which Alejandro Amenabar scored as well as directed, his methods are string and piano-led, full of yearning, twisted emotion and heavily tainted with tragedy. He employs stabbing blasts of percussion and shrieking high notes to tear and rend the atmosphere and, as with all the best spooky soundtracks, he also works his music into the effects-powered “stingers”, guaranteeing jolts that won't soon be forgotten. A mournful choir is utilised monumentally at a certain pivotal juncture, too ... and, as a collector of film scores (see the reviews) I can testify that I will certainly be seeking this one out.

    The whole “creepy-kid” concept has, inevitably, been played to death (and beyond), but it is the degree to which your feelings are manipulated that makes certain movies practising this form stand out from the rest. Small people in jeopardy are one thing. Small people seemingly instigating that jeopardy is another thing entirely and one that often elicits the most painful and most cruelly gut-wrenching of reactions. The Orphanage's mask-hidden moppet so beloved by the ad-men in the posters and publicity stills is, without doubt, a gloriously skin-crawling creation, somehow recalling nightmarish visions of the killer dwarf from Don't Look Now, Samantha Eggar's ferocious id-offspring from The Brood or even Doctor Who's gas-mask-wearing WWII sprog from Christopher Ecclestone's “fantastic” single season (altogether now ... ”Mommie”). Yet, coupled with stifled Elephant Man style breathing, this half-pint, sack-cloth terror also instils the kind of sympathy that would have the foolish stepping far too near. Along with Javier (another Spaniard - what's going on here?) Bardem's terrifying Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, expect this diminutive vision from The Other Side to wind up as an articulated action figure in a Forbidden Planet store near you soon.

    I'm not usually a fan of simple two-word titles denoting a specific location and prefixed with The. I tend to think of things like Michele Soavi's The Church or The Sect - too broad, too obvious and decidedly lacking in imagination. But The Orphanage, despite its lacklustre title, is deeply unnerving, intelligently directed and embodied by solid scares and a powerhouse performance from Belén Rueda that totally belie its one-note, easily dismissible moniker. Spain, as I have already implied, is fast becoming a bit of a fear-factory. There are already more Mediterranean horror movies on the way, including the gruelling zombie-tale [REC] and Isidro Ortiz's Shiver, and it is eminently rewarding to be singing the praises of the Latin resurgence after having sat through the recent Blu-ray release of Night Of The Werewolf and Vengeance Of The Zombies, ragged leftovers from Spain's original one-man-creature-cavalcade Paul Naschy, a filmmaker-actor-writer who was so trapped in the limbo of his nostalgic love for Universal and Hammer that his prolific output seemed to forever mire his nation's genre-fare in the eyes of more sophisticated fans.

    For now, revel in the delights of The Orphanage. A great story, great scares and the most devastatingly affecting climax this side of Frank Darabont's The Mist. Very highly recommended.

    Don't forget to check out the further details in the picture and sound highlights in the Verdict.

    Picture

    The Orphanage is presented with a luxurious 2.35:1 image that is visually captivating. As I've already said in the main body of the review, Bayona's movie boasts tremendous framing and compositions that are bold and strikingly evocative and, as such, there are huge elements to look forward with a good Blu-ray transfer. Detail within the orphanage is clear and finite, with particular attention paid to the floors, doors and walls. Characters often spiral through the building, little figures darting about amid the impressively looming wood and masonry environment, and there are plenty of the pure genre eye-candy shots of a person framed spectacularly by the corridor or room that they are in - Laura moving down the aisle towards the bathroom and trying doors as she goes, for instance - or held in extreme close-up as they listen to curious sounds or see something strange. The lighthouse - which is a beautiful image bookending the film - is marvellously rendered as is its light and the trick version that Laura creates with a cunning reflection. Colours are subdued and autumnal, though greens, blues and browns are quite impressive and the image can still appear intense with shafts of light, eyes and faces amid the shadows. Great hopes for a contrast-savvy transfer that captures the exquisite photography with all the detail intact, then.

    Sound

    No haunted house movie can afford to skimp on the effect of sound within its fear-filled enclave. The Haunting was the first to really understand the power of sudden jolting noises and an unusual, nerve-shredding sound design, and, ever since then, the genre has attempted to up the ante with perverse aural effects aplenty - a la Evil Dead II, The Legend Of Hell House, The Others and Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. And, thankfully, The Orphanage does not disappoint in this crucial department either.

    The ominous sound of the storm rumbling up in the clouds and the roiling surf crashing against the caves on the beach are great examples of natural effects spreading across the aural environment and even reaching over your head with sustained presence. Sudden noises punctuate icy stillness; a distant door banging echoes through the cinema as though some fire exit is being slammed; footsteps clatter sharply overhead or off to the side somewhere; pipes clang from unseen areas and the old building has its own in-built orchestras of creaks and groans; and then there is the eerie merry-go-round that squeaks and grates with its own otherworldly voice. The finale sees to it that Laura is beset with all kinds of hellish cacophony and this will absolutely pummel the senses, rising to a crescendo that is utterly paralysing. There is plenty of deep-bass work, too. The soon-to-be-infamous bathroom confrontation (with its excruciating finger-damage) is justifiably right up there with its traumatising sudden impact and those pesky metal poles in the cubby-hole that keep sliding and clanging together, or the medium's abrupt opening of the door upon something only she can see - man, this is a seriously potent sound design.

    Like The Others, which offered a tremendous work-out for the speakers with a truly atmospheric and jarring sound mix, The Orphanage is just crying out for a top-notch lossless audio track on Blu-ray.

    Verdict

    The Orphanage may not break particularly new ground, but this is still an awesome slice of pure gothic chills that proves the only people working successfully in the ghost-genre at the moment are the Spanish. Loaded with menace and dripping with atmosphere, Bayona's screen debut packs visual inventiveness with a devastating emotional wallop. Belén Rueda's performance is thoroughly excellent and it is a powerful actress, indeed, who can bend your feelings so supremely around the twists and turns of a murky past and a soul-searching present. Her final scenes will stay with me forever, I'm sure.

    Elegant, moving and adept at chilling the blood, The Orphanage lives up to its slavish word-of-mouth backing. It straddles the traditional ghost story with contemporary nightmares of familial anguish and weaves a spellbinding twilight tale all of its own. Despite its imminent arrival on BD, I would still urge you to seek it out on the big screen. There's nothing quite like the atmosphere evoked in a large auditorium when an amassed audience all jump at once and wait, breathless, in anticipation of another heartrending revelation. The tension is that much more electric and the sensation of not knowing what is going to come next that bit more palpable than it is at home. There, you can pause things or simply walk away. At the flicks, there's no avoiding it, even if you are covering your eyes with your hands.

    The Orphanage is awesome, folks.

    The Rundown


    9
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

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