The Orphanage (8/10)

The dead communicating with the living has always been a theme in horror films. It seems those darned ghosts just can’t seem to get enough of our world, so they stay behind and scare the crap out of us by only showing up at night and only when the camera shows an empty chair, pans away, then pans back and poof! they’re there. And for some reason they brought an orchestra with them that takes time to play one ominous and surprising note. Oh, those ghosts. Why can’t they all be friendly like Casper? In Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage,” which was produced by the visionary master of fantastic terror and director of last year’s superbly “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo del Toro, the ghosts are back and at it again, this time as children haunting an orphanage where something creepy and sinister happened many years ago, and of course they just can’t leave until they scare away a few people. “The Orphanage” is not anything innovative, but it is deliciously terrifying and one of those films that is an excellent example of its genre, a nifty little throwback to simple classic horror.

The cast is composed mostly of Spanish unknowns, so you’re not really distracted by any glaringly obvious star-power faces. Belen Rueda plays Laura, a woman returning to an abandoned orphanage that she left thirty years ago, to start a new kind of home for disabilitied kids, along with her son Simon and her husband Carlos. Simon has imaginary friends, so when he makes new imaginary friends at the orphanage (guess who), she and her husband don’t think much of it. But when something more starts to come of this, the chilling feeling of something crawling up your spine starts to infect the picture.

The worst thing about modern-day campy horror, evidenced in schlock like The Grudge, The Hills Have Eyes, Silent Hill, and so on, is that they substitute gore for scares and call it good. Even films that aren’t that gory can’t even get the scares right, as they simply use obvious scare tactics, sudden camera cuts, and loud crescendoes of music to tell you should be scared. There’s no attention to mood, character development, setting, or any of the things that makes classic horror good, like Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Gore can be used to excellent ends, but most filmmakers today simply use it to shock, and probably because they had a few extra buckets of it lying around too. The Orphanage should be required viewing for all filmmakers who want to create a horror flick, simply because it takes this tired genre, embraces every single one of its conventions, and scares the viewer sh**less.

Some of the horror tricks in the film are as old as the genre itself, but they’re used to wonderful effects. One scene has the stereotypical night-vision format, but the way that Bayona employs it is chillingly creepy. The scares are liberally sprinkled throughout the film, and for the most part, they don’t rely on the sudden reveal and the deafening clang of a soundtrack, but rather an insistent cinematic style that focuses unerrantly on what we are terrified of and gives us gritty detail that is more effective than any clanging cymbal. The production design on the movie is fantastic, perfectly conveying the creepy old-world look of the orphanage and the scarily child-like phantoms that inhabit it. But all this would be worth crap if the main protagonists were idiotic a-holes who didn’t know that taking off your clothes in a haunted house was a sure way to bring a ghoul running fast.

The Orphanage’s biggest strength is its central story of a mother’s love for his son, and it’s a beautiful one that anchors the picture in a solid reality than never once wavers. The charisma of the central actress carries it; she’s a perfect choice for the role and never once comes across as a screaming mother Hollywood archetype. Naomi Watts gave a similar performance in the underrated “The Ring” where she used her incredible talent to wonderfully convey an incredible love and simultaneous fear of her son.

The Orphanage would be a near perfect film for what it was if it wasn’t for the ending. In the last twenty minutes several unwelcome and too convenient cliches pop up, and then the last five minutes come off as so unbearably cheesy that I sat there shaking my head and wondering what in the world was going on. If they had found a way to pull it off without venturing into the territory of Jason waving to the leftover teenagers from Friday the 13th, it would have felt supremely satisfying, and even though it doesn’t end up being a wonderfully excellent horror film, it does succeed in frightening the audience very effectively, developing real characters, and creating a story that draws you in thanks to real storytelling, not convoluted plot lines masquerading as such. This is one orphanage that no child should go to, and that’s a compliment.

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