Now Showing at: most major theaters.
Review by: Larry Thomas
Horror films seem to be current cottage industry, with one being released almost every week. And no wonder: most are produced on low budgets, have a quick theatrical run (usually profitable), and then enjoy a quite nice afterlife on DVD. Many of the American films are remakes of Asian films, or of earlier American horror films, and end up just being sleazy and repulsive, with little talent to be found.
This week’s horror-film-du-jour comes from Spain, and yes, it’s in Spanish with English subtitles…which is rare for a commercial release. The driving force behind The Orphanage is Executive Producer Guillermo Del Toro, who directed last year’s outstanding Pan's Labyrinth. Unfortunately, he didn’t infuse this tale of eerie occurrences with his own directorial talent. Those chores were handed off to Juan Antonio Bayona, primarily a music video director. And while he’s no Del Toro… yet… he does have the ability to infuse The Orphanage with much atmosphere.
Laura spent time at an orphanage as a child until her adoption. Years pass, and she feels a need, perhaps even a compulsion, to return to her former dwelling to purchase the old building with her husband. The plan is to go about making a home for children with special needs.
Upon moving in to the stately, but foreboding, mansion, Laura’s adopted son Simon takes up with an imaginary friend, who knows more about the house than your average imaginary friend. When Simon disappears during a party given for other children, Laura launches into a relentless search for the young boy.
If you are a fan of ghost stories, the plot twists are going to be obvious in their simplicity. Although The Orphanage is a pastiche of many past cinematic outings, including Del Toro’s own breakthrough film The Devil's Backbone, there are a couple of good scenes to deliver a jump, chill or shudder. Another plus is that it’s not overtly gory or grizzly in its execution.
The performances are excellent, especially Belen Rueda as Laura. She is a great talent, and manages to carry off the role with total believability. The kids are also very good, especially Roger Princep as young Simon. And there’s a brief cameo from Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s daughter, as the obligatory medium who conducts a séance in the house.
There’s much to recommend The Orphanage, especially to those who like scary movies but hate slasher movies…and there is a BIG difference. Unfortunately, while not a bad film, there’s nothing new here. If you’ve seen The Haunting, The Sixth Sense, Poltergeist, The Shining, or any other of the long litany of haunted house movies or ghost stories, it’s a by-the-numbers jigsaw that borrows from all these far superior films.
But don’t dismiss seeing this film because of the subtitles. They’re easy to follow and don’t distract from the overall viewing experience. If The Orphanage helps get more foreign language films into more theatres, then it’s achieved something far better than the actual film.
The Orphanage opens next Friday at a theatre near you.