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The Orphanage (2008)

El orfanato

No secret stays locked away forever.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15


It’s billed as a horror movie, but The Orphanage, much like The Devil’s Backbone, is so much more. It’s scary, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also sad and haunting, full of love and loss. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, it has his heart all over it, but it’s Juan Antonio Bayona who brings to life the wayward spirits. There’s just something about the recent crop of Spanish fantasy and horror films that sets them apart from their Asian counterparts (and inevitable, usually skip-worthy American remakes), and I think it has to do with the feeling right below the surface that everything’s almost like a fairytale, and that there’s always a question of the line between fantasy and reality.

As these stories always do, things start off looking cozy for Laura (Belén Rueda), Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and their son Simon (Roger Príncep). The family has relocated to the home Laura loved as a child—the orphanage—and they plan to re-open it as a home for a small group of disabled children. Strange events begin to converge, however—Simon begins talking to imaginary friends, a mysterious woman begins harassing the family, and things start going bump in the night. It all goes from weird to worse, though, when Simon disappears during a party, and it’s up to Laura to solve a decades old mystery and try to save her son from the orphanage’s tragic history.

There are ghosts a ‘plenty, and some truly disturbing visuals (remember this when you watch—the jaw thing), but quite possibly the thing that won me over to this movie was that, at its core, it’s not really a horror movie—it’s really just a well-told story with definite scary elements (there’s a game of “One, two, three … Knock” that terrified me to no end, and nothing good ever came out of a kid with a burlap sack mask over his head). Bayona mixes the perfect amount of creepy creakings, shadows and light, and confusion to leave us guessing and on edge the whole time. Then there’s Rueda—she’s got Laura at her heart, never going for easy theatrics or hysterics to convey her mother’s anguish, but instead, keeping her in control even while we begin to question her grip on reality. Her determination and willingness to follow the mystery wherever it leads makes the ambiguous ending scenes even more haunting, and we’re left puzzled, saddened, and even a little hopeful. The film wisely doesn’t rely heavily on noticeable special effects, choosing instead to infuse simple scenes like a couple’s late night talk in bed or a simple children’s party with suspense and dread. I’ve heard they’re already talking about U.S.-ing this, and while I’ll probably see it, and I won’t automatically naysay it, nothing will compare to this subtle, scary original.

It's Got: Subtle but genuine scares, a freaky sack mask, a nice nod to Poltergeist.

It Needs: For more people to see it in its original form before it gets “re-imagined”.

DVD Extras Three Featurettes: “When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage”; “Tomas’ Secret Room (The Filmmakers)”; “Horror in the Unknown: Make-Up Effects”; “Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read”; “Marketing Campaign”; “Poster Examinations”; Image Galleries. DVD Extras Rating: 8/10


More than simply a horror film, The Orphanage is haunting and subtle while offering a truly coherent and emotional ghost story.