Watching El Orfanato right after Juno is a peculiar thing: the scene with the blueberry pie (as normal as it could’ve been intended) gives you quite an awkward feeling. And not the sort of awkwardness the horror movie El Orfanato wanted to you to get.
The two biggest misconceptions about The Orphanage (to use its English title at least once) is that it’s a Spanish movie (wrong, Mexican) by Guillermo del Toro (he’s only the producer). Unlike American equivalents who’ll stick their name to anything they think will earn a couple of bucks (I’m looking at you, Craven and Ta****ino), El Orfanato at least has a feeling similar to a Del Toro movie. To be more precise: it isn’t unlike The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) if you look at the storyline and Amenabar‘s The Others (Los Otros) also springs to mind.
That story: we start with a flashback of an orphanage, someone calls to pick up a little girl (Laura). Flash forward many years and Laura is an adult, who has returned to the same but by now abandoned orphanage with her husband and adopted son Simon. She plans to start a small orphanage of her own, just a handful of kids. And Simon of course, who’ll hopefully become a bit more social and spend less time with his imaginary friends.
Despite a discouraging visit from an old lady from the Social Inspection, Laura sets through with her plan to start an orphanage and doesn’t tell Simon he’s HIV positive and may not have a long time to live. Anyway, it’s time for the big party and a lot of parents and children with Down syndrome come to check out the place.
And that’s when things go wrong…
Really really wrong.
Simon desperately wants to show his mother where the home of his imaginary friend Tomas is, but she has more important things on her mind. Mother and son have an argument and she tells him not to leave his room. It seems like he’s listening to her so well she gets a bit worried and finds out her son is not in his room anymore. In fact, she can’t locate him anywhere in the house. But there is a small child now with a hideous mask who scares her and traps her in the bathroom. (A wonderful trick with slamming a door that’s both believable and horrifyingly painful… up yours, overpaid CGI people!)
When her husband and the guests find Laura, Simon is nowhere to be found and even the kid with the ugly mask has vanished completely. Laura gets the feeling Simon could have wandered to the ocean and might have drowned, but the police can’t find a body to back up her story.
And that’s when the house decides to become even scarier….
I had seen the infamous clip with the bathroom and the child with the hideous mask before, on The Culture Show to be precise, where Mark Kermode told Lauren Laverne he’d seen the movie at a press showing in Cannes and the stranger who’d been sitting next to him had grabbed Kermode’s hand four times during the movie. It is an indication of how the movie is able to be creepy without spending a lot of money on special effects. I’ll admit that there are a couple of scenes where the make-up department worked their asses off with excellent result (the scene with the whistle, anyone?), but this is living proof that you can go miles with a painted sack over a child’s head and a button for an eye if you create some atmosphere.
And boy, does this movie bathe in atmosphere…!
Honestly, I saw this with a couple of friends and I liked it the least of us four, but even I have to admit it’s not a bad movie. My particular peeves with the film were the occasional plotlines that were hard to swallow and the fact that the movie takes a lot longer if you’ve already figured out what happened to Simon during the film. A bit of comment about that last problem: it’s quite a personal problem with the film, two of my friends are as seasoned horror moviegoers as I am and they didn’t have a clue. For me, it was the camera setting for the vital scene that gave it all away. I’m willing to admit that a lot of people won’t be able to guess it, but director J.A. Bayona could’ve chosen an approach that would be less ‘in your face’ and would’ve kept everyone guessing until the end. [Click on the speech bubble to go the forum if you want to know which scene bothered me, it’s cleverly hidden by our spoiler tag, so decide for yourself if you want to ruin the movie’s clue – it won’t make the movie any less frightening.] Bearing in mind that El Orfanato is the director’s debut, we’ll send this complaint to the producer. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Del Toro!
Everyone agreed that the cinematography was excellent and most of us found the climax far-fetched. I waited a day to write this review to get over my initial disappointment and have more eye for the many merits of this movie. Parts of it are genuinely scary and effective enough to make an entire audience jumpy. The biggest problem is that the movie just isn’t subtle enough, had the company and producers behind this movie paid a bit more attention to that, the movie would’ve been a masterpiece, ending up somewhere near to Del Toro’s acclaimed The Devil’s Backbone. I also found the little boy who plays Simon a bit too irritating to genuinely care what would happen to him, but the despair of his parents was vivid enough to get my sympathy. Which seems like as good a time as any to say that Belén Rueda (Laura), in her biggest role since Amenabar’s Mar Adentro, did a wonderful job and carries the movie.
My vote would’ve been 6 out of 10 right now, which is already more than its initial score (4.5). I know that this is low and that El Orfanato deserves a higher score (if the four of us has teamed up to stick a score to the film, we’d have ended up around 8/10), but my personal issues just block me from praising it more. It doesn’t stop me from telling you it’s a movie you should try and find in a cinema or dvd shop near you and that the movie manages to come up with a couple of scenes that are genuinely scary.
Very very scary…