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The Orphanage Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    The Orphanage Review
    “Seeing is not believing. It's the other way around. Believe ... and you will see.”

    What follows is a slightly altered and extended version of the cinema review I wrote a short while ago.

    Juan Antonio Bayona's directorial debut The Orphanage (or El Orfanato) gets its US Blu-ray release only a matter of weeks after its theatrical outing in the UK. Having already played very successfully at several film festivals around the world, including a rapturous reception in London, it 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-groundbreaking spook story into something that is fascinating, petrifying and acutely memorable.

    Laura (Belén Rueda) moves, with her husband Carlos (Fernando Caya) and young adopted 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 a serious problem 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 and the life there that she left behind.

    “When something terrible happens ... sometimes it leaves a trace, like an echo ...”

    With demented old ladies cropping up unexpectedly (a superbly creepy Montserrat Carulla with wild eyes), a psychic (played by Charlie Chaplin's own daughter, Geraldine Chaplin) called Aurora 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 misstep. 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 pyrotechnics 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, like the rotund Prof. Palabon - is utterly superb and his maintenance of mood is second to none, rising in tone and urgency with drip-feed relentlessness and a momentum that, once in motion, cannot be thwarted.

    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 sending 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 one that 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/paranoia into play the more the plot progresses, with the paranormal team stepping in to investigate and Carlos' hopelessness and doubts stymieing her crusade, albeit with a more visceral impact than Farrow's. I can't recall ever having felt more emotion seeping from an actress than that which Rueda exudes. She is so dynamic in the role, and so obviously immersed in the character that some of her scenes are acutely traumatic to watch. Many actresses go through the tormented and aggrieved mother-figure cliché in their careers - Naomi Watts, Sigourney Weaver, Nicole Kidman, ad infinitum - but none have presented such realism as Rueda. 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.

    “Your friends will miss you a lot, Laura.”

    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. But this is, indeed, a powerful new vogue. Asian horror has already plumbed through such revelation-rife nightmares, but whereas I often find their impact somewhat dislocated and alienating, things such as Del Toro's two home-grown offerings, The Others and now The Orphanage actually base themselves inescapably within the emotional plight of the characters. Asian horror needs its shocks and the stories themselves probably wouldn't work at all without them, their characters and situations hardly things that you tend to empathise with. But the idea with European horrors is that there is a damn fine story populated by people that you care about in there already, and the supernatural embroidery just accentuates this identification.

    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 orphanage, itself, is actually a set - huge, elaborate and beautifully constructed with age and atmosphere virtually stitched into it - and Bayona has his cameras gliding through its rooms and along its corridors so smoothly that you would swear you were being led on an official tour of a real location.

    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 upper floors of 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 in one of the out-buildings. 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 really been speaking to suddenly dawns. The ever-present wailing of the wind - which Bayona claims represents Laura's psyche - fills the sound-mix with dense, distracting swirls. 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. A light blinking on and off reveals things that are there one second and gone the next. These are all devices, to be sure - but it is a measure of well they are brought into play ... and Bayona, despite his novice status with The Orphanage, comes across like a dedicated veteran.

    “How can they trust me with their kids after this?”

    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. It is also refreshing to hear a modern horror score that doesn't fall back on synthesisers to propel itself and to manufacture effects within the sound design at the expense of intelligent instrumentation. 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.

    “You're lying! You say you're my mother, but you're not!”

    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/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 from around the world.

    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 indeed.

    The Rundown


    9
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10
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