19 January 2008

The Orphanage (El Orfanato)

It’s a credit to the filmmakers of “The Orphanage (El Orfanato)” that it takes so long to figure out just what is going on. We’re not sure if the reason for Laura’s son Simon’s disappearance is supernatural or the work of a creepy old woman. We’re not sure if Laura is crazy or if there really are ghosts in her childhood orphanage that she has now bought. And, as viewers, we’re not always sure when we should be apprehensive, which is more than a little disconcerting.
It helps to have such a command of atmosphere in the face of a rather cliché story. Laura, played by Belén Rueda, moves into her childhood orphanage to open a home for kids with special needs. Her son, displaying that rare sense of the supernatural that all children in horror films apparently have, starts to play with a new imaginary friend named Tomás. He soon disappears, and Laura and her husband Carlos begin a frantic search lasting for months.
Possible culprits include an old woman who used to work at the orphanage, or a supernatural sinister force embodied by the spirits of children. At the risk of giving too much away, I’ll go no further, but suffice to say that it’s not exactly a story you’ve never seen before.
Other ubiquitous scenes include the visit of a medium, played by the linguistically versatile Geraldine Chaplin. Monitors and microphones are hooked up, and the others watch as she makes her way through the spiritual realm of the house, encountering the ghostly forces within. But of course, there are skeptics, and soon Laura is left alone.
The last thirty minutes of the film are its strongest part, and Laura’s struggle becomes much more personal and intimate. We get some answers to the puzzle, but not all of them. Even so, the film features one of the only times I’ve felt truly satisfied at the end of a horror film.
Despite the tired story, the film is very well made and well acted. The cinematography creates just the right mood, without overly relying on darkness or fog to make us frightened.
Also, I suppose we should be thankful every time we get a decent horror movie that doesn’t rely on torture, films that are more like Hitchcock and less like “Hostel.”
One of the producers of the film is Guillermo del Toro, the man who brought us last year’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” This has sparked many comparisons between the two, but I don’t know if I would go that far. This film is less like that dark fantasy, and more like a cross between “The Ring” and the all-but-forgotten “Legend of Hell House.”
Overall, it’s admirable and more than decent, especially if you, like me, feel it’s been a long time since a horror film was made that didn’t disgust people. It may not go so far as to be an homage to classic thrillers, but at least it reminds us, in some vague way, about the subtlety and class of the best films of the genre.

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