Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: The Orphanage

Starring: Belén Rueda, Geraldine Chaplin, Fernando Cayo
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Release Date: January 11, 2008 (wide)
Running time: 100 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Picturehouse

I’m pretty sure any time you are a former foster child growing up in a creepy old house the last thing you want to do is buy it later in life and reopen it. I guess I can’t speak from experience, but it seems a bit off-putting on its own.

The Orphanage is presented by Guillermo del Toro and directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona. The Spanish horror film is about Laura (Belén Rueda), a former resident who returns to the orphanage where she grew up with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their son Simón (Roger Príncep) with plans to reopen it as a home for sick and disabled children. Simón, an only child, has imaginary friends that worry his parents mildly, but not alarmingly. That is until he informs his mother of a game him and his new friend, Tomás play — a scavenger hunt that leads to the boy finding out a family secret about himself. After a period of reclusion and a chilling scene where Laura thinks she sees Tomás, Simón disappears. Without a trace. Over the coming months, Laura and Carlos are slowly driven apart by the separate paths their individual grief takes. Carlos tries to remain a realist, but Laura begins to see these imaginary friends and continues to search.

Any time you have an old house as a setting, you automatically make an additional character for your movie, good or bad. This film benefits from the subtlety of the “performance” of the house. It helps create a mood here that goes beyond creaky doors and antique furniture by creating a visual style that complements the setting and the mood perfectly. Even the muted, dull, earth tones help add to the ambiance of the film. Of course the setting does not completely make the movie, it just helps. There are also strong performances, namely from Rueda who wisely embodies the emotion of a mother dealing with loss without overplaying.

This is a perfect example of how a PG-13 horror movie should be made, even though calling it a horror movie is misleading. It’s a simple ghost story that does what it set out to do. The good thing about this movie is that it works very well despite the lack of blood and gore. Instead, it relies on another device that seems to have been forgotten by filmmakers these days trying for the same affect — tension and pacing. The Orphanage tells a genuinely intriguing and often scary, ghost story that never cheats, yet explains everything in the end. The good thing about this is that it works exceptionally well. The bad thing about it is that it works exceptionally well. Not bad directly, but any time something works well like this, the jackals at American studios immediately rush out multiple attempts to recreate the same feel. The result is all the remakes we get dumped on us until we are oversaturated with inferior redo’s until the well runs dry.

I sat down to write this review and I had in mind what I wanted to say. One thought I had while watching the movie was, “I wonder how effective this movie would have been as an American ghost story?” Since the American version of horror these days is throwing buckets of blood everywhere and coming up with elaborate death scenes that star the newest flavor of the week, more times than not the answer is ‘no’. While I was getting ready to write the review I found out we don’t have to wait long to get the answer on this one. It seems that New Line Cinema has acquired the English-language rights and plans to move forward with a remake. Can’t we at least let the body get cold before we start picking the meat off the bones? And more importantly, why? Haven’t we already proven we can’t successfully remake foreign horror? The Ring was just, ok. Beyond that I can’t think of one off the top of my head. The Orphanage is the type of movie that should be seen and applauded on its own merits. I strongly recommend seeing it now, before its impact is greatly watered down by a shoddy American remake.

And there’s the rub.

*** 1/2 out of ****

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