Movie Review: The Orphanage (El Orfanato)

The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, in keeping with his penchant for Spanish stories with Spanish actors, has assumed the role of producer for The Orphanage (El Orfanato). A horrific tale of ghosts in a spooky house, it is just the sort of movie you would expect to interest Sr. del Toro. Though lacking the touches of color and imagination that are characteristic of his own works, the movie’s direction feels less awkward and the resulting average makes for a similar grade.

Set in Spain, the movie is about a couple and their adopted son who move back to the orphanage where the heroine spent much of her youth. Laura (Belén Rueda) and her spouse Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have plans to take in a few orphans at some point in the future, but a horror movie’s plot will not permit such idyllic dreams without protest. First, Laura’s son begins talking to invisible friends and insists they are real. Next, like clockwork, strange occurrences beset the family, occurrences which become increasingly harder to explain through rational means. The heroine eventually, of course, becomes convinced that there is a supernatural explanation and her spouse, of course, stubbornly refuses to countenance such nonsense. She throws herself into an investigation and he begins to withdraw from the affair.

There is never any question in the moviegoer’s mind that supernatural events are indeed transpiring. This does not give anything away that is not felt almost immediately and confirmed soon thereafter. Rare is the ghost story which wraps up with a perfectly natural explanation, or at least leaves us with an ambiguous ending, but it seems to me that The Orphanage could have left us with a bit of doubt through Act I at least. Instead, there are obvious clues which leave no room for a natural cause. Perhaps I have simply seen too many of this sort of movie, but the moments that are supposed to give us goose bumps feel expected and habitual. Naturally she will see footprints where none should be found; of course objects will be moved when none but one of the invisible friends could have done it. I haven’t read the manual of horror writing, but I have seen enough of its products to be able to turn out a close approximation.

Though The Orphanage does not revolutionize the genre, it does manage to achieve some authentic thrills. There is a séance – there must be a séance! – but at least the ceremony is reasonably unique and the filmmakers are judicious in what they show us and what they leave to our imagination. And the moment when the heroine makes contact with some of the spirits through a children’s game is effective enough to chill even when we know exactly what is going to happen.

The actors perform well as forgettable characters in undistinguished roles. But for a bit of back story, the heroine is interchangeable with characters from the majority of other horror movies (truly exceptional roles have always been less abundant than actors capable of filling them). The other characters are flat and cliché: for instance the man who introduces the heroine to the medium Balaban (Edgar Vivar) and the medium herself speak with foreign accents. Apparently, in Spain, like America, arcane knowledge of another world must come from another country. With what accent do vampires speak in Romania?

The movie is too formulaic to be truly great, but it is competently filmed and well acted. Even some of the scares you see coming from a mile off manage to have an effect. It doesn’t make you love the characters or grab you and hold you in its world, but it is modestly entertaining. If you like the genre I would recommend it as worth seeing.

Grade: B-

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Matthew is a graduate of THE Ohio State University. An occasionally truant student, he majored in Spanish when he finally got around to it. His interests, apart from movies, range from heavy metal and classical music to football, soccer, hockey, history, economics and obviously sex, a subject in which, like the Vicomte Sabastien de Valmont said of Madame de Volanges in Dangerous Liaisons, he is more noted for his enthusiasm than his ability. So be it. His DVD collection is growing to an acceptable size, and along the way he has noted that decades which begin with an odd number the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s are cinematically stronger than decades which begin with an even number. Therefore, he is anxiously awaiting 2010 and hopes still to be a Reject at that date.

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