January 17, 2008

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The Orphanage (R)
Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez seek to creep you out, just like this movie’s producer Guillermo Del Toro did in his Pan’s Labyrinth, in the delightfully spooky The Orphanage, the English title for the subtitles-having, surprisingly dark Spanish language El Orfanto.

Laura (Belén Rueda), her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their son Simon (Roger Princep) move to a big house on the shore that used to be the orphanage where Laura grew up. She has decided to open the home up to children in need — specifically children with some kind of disability or illness. Though Simon doesn’t know it, he’s one of those children — he has HIV. Simon’s a bit of a lonely kid, we learn; he’s created a group of imaginary friends to spend his days with and, as the family settles in to the orphanage, he develops a few more. One boy in particular starts to worry Laura — Simon calls him Tomás and draws him as having a sack over his head. Worried as Laura is by this development and by Simon’s sudden anger at his claim that Tomás and his new friends have told him he’s adopted (which he is) and dying, she becomes even more worried when she sees the sack-wearing Tomás herself. He pushes her into a bathroom and locks her in there at an open house. By the time Carlos can pry Laura out, Simon is nowhere to be found.

Simon is nowhere to be found for months, but Laura won’t give up her search nor can she shake the feeling that the house itself has something to do with her son’s disappearance. As a child, after she left, she never again saw the children who had been her friends at the orphanage. Is it possible, she starts to wonder, that they are still there?

What makes this movie truly frightening and disturbing in a way that has nothing to do with squished eyeballs or torture devices is that it is not afraid to let bad things happen and to make those bad things real. About halfway through the movie, someone is killed. In your standard horror movie, the character wouldn’t really be dead, wouldn’t have been alive to begin with or would have been killed by ghostly means. Here, the character — someone whose appearance is ominous and whose motives in showing up in the story at all are unclear — really does die and dies from a very earthly cause that then frustrates rather than illuminates the central mystery. As with Pan’s Labyrinth, the dangers and the boogie men are real — it’s only the images that suggest fantasy.

The Orphanage puts us in this mindset with standard spooky images (creaky old house, dusty passageways, things hidden in shadow) but uses them in a way that creates chills rather than chuckles. The movie creates doubt — are we seeing what really is? What Laura thinks is? Like all good horror movie spouses, Carlos is a staunch non-believer when it comes to ghosts and the ability of the house to kidnap his son. Read the movie in one way, and he’s right. It makes the film no less frightening to view its events through the skeptic’s eye.

The Orphanage looks great and feels modern while still having a classic suspense-movie and even a fairy tale-like quality to it. It is from beginning to end a good ride that doesn’t let you look away. A

Rated R for some disturbing content. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and written by Sergio G. Sanchez, The Orphanage is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed by Picturehouse.