Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
When was the last time you sat for a film and as you watched with wide eyes, an uneasy feeling fell over you? A tight little knot forms in your stomach. A wave of anxiety triggers goosebumps as a disconcerting quiet envelops the theater. If you are a die hard horror fan, I’m sure it’s been a long time since a film truly got under your skin. Welcome to The Orphanage, a film you’ll not soon forget.
Director Guillermo del Toro has been single-handedly building the sub-genre we’ll call “Mexican Supernatural Thriller” with titles like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. His stories emphasize content over spectacle, raising the drama of each moment to the foreground, but wrapping it tightly in otherworldly ether resulting in a tale that often chills the watcher to their core. The Orphanage has a very similar feel and oddly, it is not a del Toro film! Apparently the del Toro name is becoming somewhat of a marquee draw like “Quentin Tarantino presents”, and in this case, I’m hoping the name helps to push this amazing film into as many theaters as possible. Let’s get to the meat of it.
Laura (Rueda) grew up in an orphanage with several other children, most of who seemed to carry an ailment of some sort. Flash forward 20 years or so and Laura has returned to the orphanage, now a vacant building, with her husband and child in tow to begin a new life caring for children with special needs. Laura’s son Simon (Princep) is a wildly imaginative child with a face so sweet even a Hell’s Angel would fall apart. Simon quickly makes friends in his new home, albeit ones his parents can not see. Racing through the house on adventures with his mother, it seems as if the days could not get any sweeter. This is, of course, when things go horrifically wrong.
A mysterious old woman is found on the property and an impending dread follows. Simon’s playmates jump in number and his behavior becomes erratic. During a party, Simone vanishes. Now Laura must find out why her son is gone, and whom or what has taken him. Finding the answers will unravel a mystery thought dead and buried for many years … but as we know from experience, in these creepy little tales, things tend to not stay buried.
Rueda plays Laura as a loving mother and free spirit, not against chasing after her son whose imagination drives them on. There is vulnerability amid her fearlessness though which comes across in moments of terror. She feels the darkness coming, and you feel it along with her. Princep is every bit the angelic little boy needed for this role with no forcing of cuteness you might find in an American film, all too often. His sleepy little voice is just the thing to lull you into a false sense of security … the ultimate set up! Beware the anime eyed little boys!!
Fernando Cayo rounds out our happy family as Carlos, providing the more level headed father figure counterpoint. When things take a turn to the odd, Carlos does his best to support his wife while giving us the slightest glimpse of doubt. After all, his son is missing and his wife has some unconventional ideas as to where he’s gone. She could very well be losing her mind and he is here to suggest it … perhaps not out loud but definitely through knowing glances and things left unsaid. This cast works so well together, there is never a moment of doubt to their validity, which just makes the events that unfold that much more horrifying.
Also of note is a cameo from Geraldine Chaplin as Aurora the spirit sensitive who comes to investigate the house. Her performance will remind you of a similar scene from Poltergeist, only Aurora seems way more at risk of attack by whatever inhabits the house. I think I held my breathe through the entire scene.
This is the creepiest ghost story since The Changeling. That is to say, it’s the most profoundly unsettling film we’ve seen in the last 27 years. Guillermo del Toro will tell a story of hardship and human drama and fold into it creatures from your darkest nightmares that seamlessly, inexplicably blend into the tale. To his credit, Juan Antonio Bayona weaves a similar magic but where del Toro blends, Bayona enhances. Supernatural creatures are very tangible in his world, leaving behind the dark corners and black tunnels in favor of standing before you, in daylight, much to your dismay.
Bayona conditions his audience to dread such moments and feel them coming, as evidenced by one such movie-goer in my screening whom, upon realizing the music had stopped and all noise had ceased, let out a groan of discomfort, knowing full well she was about to jump out of her seat. I offer further proof with a one Miss Heather Buckly, my date for the evening, who is an encyclopedia of horror films and the last person you would expect to be shaken by a ghost story. Standing on the street in the middle of Times Square, NYC, Heather remarked “I’m still seriously freaked out!” I have no doubt The Orphanage will stand as one of the most chilling movies ever created. Be prepared for appalling images, jump scares by the dozen, slow building creeps and a finale so heartbreaking you’ll be speechless. Do not miss this film.
5 out of 5