It warrants mentioning up front that this reviewer has no predilection for the horror genre and rarely does he see a horror film ascend above mediocrity. But The Orphanage doesn’t just ascend, it soars. One can only hope that Guillermo Del Toro has started a yearly tradition of a gothic horror film from Spain being released in the U.S. I’m already looking forward to seeing what Mr. Del Toro has conjured up for us next. Del Toro only served as a producer here and let J.A. Bayona handled the reigns. While The Orphanage doesn’t even touch the realm Pan’s Labyrinth is in, it still ranks among the best thrillers to come out in the last few years. It’s a stern, eerie, and even profound film that miraculously produces thrills and chills with the absence of blood, never once insults the viewer’s intelligence, and from what I recall, there isn’t a gaping plot hole in sight!
The titular orphanage was home to Laura (Belen Rueda) as a little girl as well as home to roughly a half-dozen other children. The orphanage soon closes down and the adult Laura returns several decades later along with her husband Carlos and their adopted, HIV infected son Simon to live there and reopen it, hoping to house the needs of five or six more children. As Simon is lonely at first, Laura and Carlos notice that he starts playing with seemingly imaginary friends. Soon after, Simon goes missing without a single trace and because of this, Laura and Carlos are denied the would be resident children they were promised. This is where The Orphanage turns into a ghost story as the image of an ostracized orphan boy with a tattered sack over his deformed face appears before Laura. I won’t go any further into plot detail. It’s best for you to discover the rest on your own.
J.A. Bayona marks himself as director to watch as this could very well be his breakthrough work. Bayona, in a bravura style with meticulous timing, crafts a haunted house thriller fraught with suspense. On the technical side of things, Bayona seems to know all the best tricks. From lighting, to camera angle, to tone, he nails all of it. What sticks out the most is that tone; dark indoors, and gray outdoors, it leaves the viewer totally frozen. It is a real joy to discover a director that not only proves he can rise above your average genre hack-job, but has the competence to make an intelligent film.
Surprisingly, scaring the audience isn’t what The Orphanage is all about. The film has it’s priorities in the right order: character, plot, and then suspense. You can credit screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez for paying attentive detail to the lead character, Laura, who wants nothing more than to hold Simon in her arms again. Structurally, the film is very solid as it peels itself layer by layer, simultaneously keeping viewers on their toes and jumping out of their chairs. Where The Orphanage really excels is in it’s beautifully written denouement. Sanchez respectably doesn’t make the events that happen appear in plain black-and-white but rather leaves you to reason your own hindsight.
The lead performance by Belen Rueda is commanding and forceful. As Laura, Rueda delves into the numerous conflicting emotions her character is feeling; from the sorrow of losing her son to the hopefulness of getting him back, to the curiosity of just what the hell is going on, to the pluckiness she shows in her determination to not give up. Supporting her is Fernando Cayo as Carlos, who doesn’t see the same things she sees, wants to act as a succor, but can’t pull himself to believe her and who can blame him? As Simon, newcomer Roger Princep’s skills are scarcely put on display but Bayona makes up for it by dwelling his innocence into our very souls.
For my money, The Orphanage is an exemplary supernatural thriller and now the standard to which I will compare future, equally ambitious projects. It’s as close to flawless of a film in the genre that I can think of all the way back to The Sixth Sense. There are no monsters, or slashers, and yet the movie got under my skin so much so that it left me shaky as I walked out of the theater. We could use more projects like this one and, as I said before, hopefully at least Del Toro and Bayona have started a yearly tradition of releasing a thriller that really stands above the crowd.