With is flair for horror and fantasy, Guillermo Del Toro has led the charge in recent years for new Spanish horror films. His films Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, he’s paved the way for other Spanish directors to try their hand at horror movies. In 2001, Alejandro Amenábar directed The Others, a great haunted house horror movie albeit in the English language. And a film similar to The Others, and produced by Del Toro is released this week, Juan Antonio Bayona’s El Orfanato, The Orphanage.
The Orphanage is one of those great spooky haunted house horror movies that hides it’s scares in shadows. Taking place in modern day, it tells the tale of Laura who returns to the orphanage she resided in as a child before she was adopted. Her plan is to restore the house and turn it into a care home for disabled children. She brings with her her husband Carlos and adopted son Simon. Things start off fine, but when her son befriends an imaginary boy named Tomas, things begin to turn a little eerie.
The success of The Orphanage is helped by the setting. The orphanage itself becomes something of a fourth character after Laura, her husband Carlos and Simon. It seems to take on an ominous personality of it’s own. It’s a beautiful house that’s lit beautifully by Oscar Faura, and becomes exactly what you’d expect from a haunted house. Added to this, the sound design is also brilliantly executed, with bumps and bangs at exactly the right moments. The dark history of the orphanage is revealed slowly throughout the film through the use of flashbacks to Laura’s childhood. But it’s not a contrivance, and doesn’t get in the way of the story.
There are elements to the film that have been seen before. Like the film mentioned before, the film is somewhat reminiscent of The Others. The Others was another film that relied on it’s setting as an integral part of the film’s success. The Orphanage also features a séance that harks back to Poltergeist. Except in this case, the séance is a lot more realistic. It’s a wonderfully creepy part of the film, with most of the ‘action’ revealed through monitors hooked up to cameras dotted throughout the house. In fact, it’s at this moment that the film really takes off. It’s somewhat of a slow burner, starting off slowly and building tension instead of going straight for the jugular immediately.
Aside from the wonderful tension created by director Bayona, the other thing that makes The Orphanage such an wonderfully executed horror film is the question you keep asking yourself as to whether the events unfolding are actually supernatural or the psychological breakdown of Laura, the main character. It’s this kind of questioning that grounds the film in reality rather than letting it drift off into the fantastical. The performance by Belén Rueda as Laura ties all the other elements together. It’s vital that she is believable as a frantic mother struggling to protect her child (without giving too much away). And she achieves this very well. Few people, especially her husband believe her when she starts to think more supernaturally than realistically. But she is firm in her beliefs and resolute without ever becoming a frantic screaming damsel in distress.
In an age where horror films are either remakes of foreign language films (and yes, even The Orphanage is ALREADY slated for an American remake) or god-awful gore fests, the occasional psychological horror does manage to restore faith in filmmaking. And while there are elements of The Orphanage that have been seen before, the story, and especially the excellent pay-off in the third act make for a really brilliant film.