I don’t like cheap shots. I can’t stand when some movie shows up in the theaters claiming to be the “scariest movie since (insert movie title here)” when all the movie really has is a means of making a violin screech at ridiculously high decibel levels while something pops out. I know this has become a staple scare tactic that is here to stay, but horror movies need to remember how to build the tension instead of just throwing loud noises at us. Juan Antonio Bayona clearly has not forgotten the importance of a solid story and smart pacing. The Orphanage plays like an old ghost story, but it certainly has a fair share of tricks and twists up its sleeves—good twists. Most importantly, as far as horror movies go, it’s fantastically scary.
Laura (Belén Rueda) decides to reopen her childhood orphanage to foster children with special needs. While renovating the building in preparation for its reopening, Laura’s son Simón (Roger Príncep) starts to make imaginary friends. On the opening day of the orphanage, Simón goes missing, and the strange things happening in the house lead Laura to believe Simón’s new friends might not be so imaginary.
Aw, man. Another horror movie where the scary elements are creepy kids? Isn’t that beating what is already a thoroughly dead horse? You would think so, but it works. Most horror movies are just simply trying to be scary. The Orphanage wants to be a good movie first, and a horror movie second.
It’s not surprising to find out that Guillermo Del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame produced The Orphanage. The Orphanage carries a similar visual style and has a similar feel, but it is less epic and more contained. Like Del Toro’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage is able to perfectly capture a childlike innocence and fantasy that doesn’t come off as hokey or contrived, and it brings humanity to a genre that is usually lacking in it. In fact, The Orphanage is the only horror movie in recent memory that I find to be very touching. Bayona appears to have a good understanding of his characters, and he can pull at heartstrings just as well as he can grip you with fear.
I guess this is as good of a time as any to point out something that you may have already picked up on: the film is in Spanish. With names like Simón and production by Guillermo Del Toro (oh, and the actual title is El Orfanato), you possibly deduced it was created in another country. But don’t give up on it. A horror movie with subtitles can absolutely work, and this one does.
The acting is all-around top-notch. Belén Rueda gets a majority of the screen time, and she handles it perfectly. Her character runs the gamut of emotions, and everything is pulled of extraordinarily well. My personal favorite actor in the movie, however, was little Roger Príncep. He brings so much charm and wonder to the film at only nine years old. He gives a better performance in The Orphanage than a lot of Hollywood actors have ever given in anything.
So if you’re a fan of horror, fantasy, Spanish or good things in general, The Orphanage is a safe bet. The tension is tight, the atmosphere is thick, yet the innocence fortunately remains.