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The Orphanage (2007)
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
review by Paul Higson
Nominated for 14 Goyas, the winner of seven, and selected as the Spanish entry into the Oscars competition, it's all got to count for something does Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage (aka: El Orfanato). Frankly, I find it inconceivable that there wasn't a better Spanish film released over the last 12 months. Spanish cinema is often impressive but the horror genre of the country can be very hit and miss. The occasional enormous international horror hit has given Spain a reputation for magnum chills but a peruse of what else has been on offer can disappoint, though the four horror films previewed at the 2008 Viva! 14th Spanish and Latin American film festival have all proven, to some extent, to be effective thrillers. The Orphanage rides the coattails of the two Guillermo del Toro successes The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth but fails to achieve the consistent veneer and vision of those films.
Classic cinema is represented not by entire films but moments. The Orphanage certainly has its fair share of moments but it is an overall somewhat uncertain package. Ironically, what the film above all lacks, is irregularity and a soupcon of perversion. Think back to Guerrin Hill's The Bell Of Hell and Ibanez Serrador's Quien Puede Matar a Un Nino and they are fractured visions with a sick heart. The Orphanage is too polished. I am an advocate of traditional film technique and often argue how it can work to the betterment of the genre as it relaxes the viewer until necessary giving the shocks a bigger jolt. Likewise, I have also argued against the fidgety digital approach as the gimmick ceaselessly goes for agitation of the viewer and that without rest the peaks are not as readily felt. Handheld horrors exhaust the audience long before the end. I have been proven wrong with two handheld horrors in the past few weeks, Cloverfield and [REC]. It is horribly nice to be able to settle back and settle into a horror film and The Orphanage achieves a lot by doing that. Sadly, there are also niggles throughout and one huge mistake at the end which robs the film of some of its terrible pleasure.
The Orphanage concerns a children's home where most of young charges have a disability or life-threatening ailment. One of the few able-bodied children, Laura (Belen Rueda) is adopted and in adulthood returns to the building, along with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their own adopted child, Simon (Roger Princep). The boy is unaware that they are not his true parents nor does he know that he is HIV positive. When the child's age is given as seven it bothers me as he appears much older. That is niggle number one. Laura is visited by an old woman named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) purporting to be a social worker and carrying a file with the all of the boy's details in it. Laura will hold no truck with her and sends her on her way. Simon has a couple of imaginary friends and the house and the nearby coastal cave seems only to increase their number. Laura and Simon get caught up in a bizarre game in which objects found around the house provide clues to the next location. Simon credits his newest invisible acquaintance with the game's authorship. The clues end with the kitchen drawer and the prize is the file that Laura had snatched from Benigna. She struggles with Simon over the document but he already knows what it says, his invisible playmate having broken the news to him of his adoption and illness.
The orphanage has an open day, welcoming a number of potential clients and their families, again children that have learning difficulties and health problems, Laura intending on giving something back to the house. Everyone is encouraged to wear cheapjack masks during the open day, which is not, perhaps, the best way to bring a lot of confused children together. One child wearing a disturbing scarecrow mask (perhaps influenced by the original Frank L. Baum scarecrow artwork) appears first in the gardens and then in the house. The scarecrow boy challenges Laura. This sequence, which begins with the masked child standing at one end of the corridor with Laura in the doorway of the bathroom, is a fantastically dealt episode of terror. The rasping sounds from inside the hood, the slow advance of the boy, the violent attack and painful injuries that result have the viewer cringing in horror and shrieking with terror. Simon vanishes that day and Laura is laid up with several injuries. The house continues to creak and thud menacingly and the merry-go-round in the grounds squeals tormentedly.
Three months pass and still no sign of the boy. Benigna, the fake social worker, is spied in the street and Laura calls out to her. The old woman is pushing a pram and is distracted long enough in the middle of the road to bring about her gruesome accidental death. This is super sequence number two, comprising of several jolts of horror inflected with a touch of the bizarre. The director teases us with the ghastly details, initially denying them to us, just a glimpse, but then rubbing our face in it, and just when we think he has satisfied himself with the tormenting, he shows us the horror one more time. It is a terrifically timed sequence. The couple invite a team of paranormal investigators into the house to monitor the activity, and a psychic named Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) accompanies them. This takes us into the next aurally terrifying episode and there will be two more haunting set-ups before we are sent home. Unfortunately, it is not the macabre and downbeat revelatory pieta where the film chooses to end as The Orphanage moves into a mawkish final tableau fantasy that defies the spooky and threatening spirit of all that led to it.
Director, Juan Antonio Bayona, a veteran music promo director in Spain, confesses that he ran films by his favourite director Steven Spielberg for cast and crew before shooting, and Poltergeist obviously during one chapter. But one wishes that he had not seemingly checked that 'Kick The (fucking) Can' episode from Twilight Zone: The Movie before engaging The Orphanage's duff finale. Mention of 'pipes' at one point brings to mind Ghostwatch, the British TV film also made familiar, possible unintentionally, during the psychic investigation and filming. The ending is more than a niggle and the film should have ended when she reaching the dormitory and sat down. It is the little things that spoil the rest of the film. The boy that is too old. An extreme close-up shot of Rueda that shows thickly layered makeup intended for nothing closer than a medium shot. The first half hour is not enough of a build-up and is mediocre. Neither do we really become acquainted with the husband.
We never learn his occupation, or where the money to re-open the orphanage has come from, or any sense of an attraction between husband and wife. Come to that, he has no character whatsoever. The paranormal investigation, largely based on its sound effects, may persuade a movie audience but it leaves Carlos and the lady detective who witness it unconvinced. They are both relatively unmoved during the sequence though the cries of children become piercing. It implies to me that the sequence may have been shot with the intention of a more subtle soundtrack, and that Bayona was instructed by the producers to crank up the fright track during post-production. Following the attack by the child, Laura, despite a painful injury, seems to underplay the agony once she has left the bathroom. The pain from broken fingers and a lost fingernail do not die down a few minutes later and pushing the scaffolding back into the closet would have been more cumbersome with that hand. The Orphanage has not five great moments but five great sequences. Sadly, it matches them with as many moments, sequences and nonsenses that impinge on the greater enjoyment and satisfaction the film could have brought.
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