Director – Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer – Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring – Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla
Usually when a famous and well respected director, in this case Pan’s Labyrinth creator Guillermo Del Toro, attaches their name to another film under the title “presents” it will draw fans but ultimately disappoint. The Orphanage has broken that trend, at least for now, as it’s a creepy, skin-crawling and genuinely effective little horror film that should have you grabbing for the nearest thing to hide behind.
A woman moves her family into a house where she used to stay as an orphan and she decides to open it up again. Before long her son starts to communicate with some invisible new friends.
It’s not really apparent from the beginning that The Orphanage is going to be the scary ride it soon becomes. It starts off fairly slowly, concentrating very much on the story and the origins of things to come. It sets up things very well for the scares to come, using various techniques to lull us into a false sense of security. But at the same time everything has a creepy air about it, not least of all is the Shining-esque empty house with seemingly endless hallways and huge rooms. The aforementioned Kubrick masterpiece showed us that a huge and empty building can be terrifying in and of itself and The Orphanage has that same thing going for it.
Things soon take a turn for the scarier, and this isn’t really giving anything away since it happens fairly early on, when the main character’s son disappears at a party without a trace of who might have took him and where he might have gone. This, also, in and of itself is a creepy thing to watch. The disappearance of a person without a trace is an interesting plot device and it is sure to hold the viewers interest until the conclusion. Added to that the fact that you actually care about these characters and what happens to them, the ordeal they go through makes you feel for them.
What makes The Orphanage so effective is the carefully and precisely done moments of horror and big jump scares. I would need at least three hands to count the amount of times I jumped throughout the movie, in particular one in which I can safely say everyone in the cinema jumped out of their skin all at the same time, and for any horror film to get that reaction from me that many times I commend it thoroughly.
The film uses various different, effective techniques to create the jump scares and general horror tension. Most notably is the use of music, when and how it is employed. Usually in a horror film the music will either build up and up and culminate right when something jumps out at you or it will culminate then there will be a moment or two of silence and then something will jump out at you. The Orphanage builds the music for an extended period of time, culminates as you would expect and then nothing would come of it. This happens more towards the first part of the movie, the music becomes more and more few and far between as the movie goes on, and is used to great effect. This could possibly frustrate some viewers who are used to, want and expect the regular kind of jumps scares but it’s part of the reason it works so well. It plays on audience expectation, does things differently and then proceeds to make you jump regardless.
To accompany the horror element of the film there is also a great sense of humanity to it all. This is fairly unusual in horror films, especially nowadays, as we are used to seeing everything be in a film as an excuse to have the horror element. Here we have both; arguably the humanistic side actually takes president more than the horror does. But it doesn’t once ruin the movie, as it actually adds an extra layer than most, including myself, weren’t expecting to get from the film. This element helps the audience care for the characters and to actually give a damn what becomes of them.
I can’t quite say there was anything majorly wrong about the film, except, perhaps, that it’s a tad too long and the scares aren’t quite as frequent for any die hard horror film. Luckily I am not one of those devoted horror nuts who needs gore and/or terrifying moments for every minute of a film’s runtime. Therefore even though it was noticeable that it wasn’t scary at every moment it didn’t really bother me as it might some.
It’s wonderful to see a horror film that prays on fears of a more phsychological nature and that gets under your skin as opposed to the plethora of gory films we have had as of late. It’s effectiveness can surely be attributed to the skilfully done moments of skin crawling horror and huge jump scares inserted at exactly the right moments. This is most likely going to be wearing the crown of best horror of 2008 and I will be surprised if that’s proven otherwise.