“Seeing is not believing, it’s the other way round. Believe and you will see.”
The Orphanage (El Orfanato in Spanish) is a supernatural thriller movie. I’m sure I heard a lot of you sigh. After all there is a check list for supernatural horror/thriller movies and on the surface; The Orphanage seems to tick them all. Dilapidated old building? Check. A vast old history? Check. Invisible “friends?” Check. Possible children ghosts? Check. Vengeful mothers? Check. Every worn out cliché? Check check, check and check. It just makes you want to not watch.
Don’t be dismayed though because what director J. A. Bayona does here with The Orphanage is takes all of that and builds on it making it more of a brilliant movie than a cheap thrill ride.
The Orphanage centres on Laura who with her husband Carlos and son Simon returns to the titular place where she grew up. Intent on re-opening the run down building as a facility for disabled children, Laura aims to bring new life there. When Simon starts saying he has new invisible friends, and strange noises start to echo around the house, it is clear that old life there just doesn’t want to let go. After an argument with Simon and Laura, Simon threatens to run away with his new friends and soon after, he disappears. It is up to Carlos and Laura to find him as soon as they can.
What The Orphanage isn’t is an all budget, all CGI and all screams ghost story. Where most would rely on jumps or gore to shock the audience, The Orphanage doesn’t. Like the great thrillers of Hitchcock, Bayona here uses suspense and intrigue to coax out the frights. The ever-turning story is filled with a building pace that drums as a soft heartbeat only to increase as the story goes on.
Drawing on the atmosphere within a grand building, Bayona makes an intellectual supernatural thriller that requires more attention as he draws you in. The maze of the house serves as a winding labyrinth of fear as trepidation mounts in winding corridors and secret rooms. On top off this, there is a visceral and palpable emotion that curves alongside the angst. As the two emotions combine, the finale will hit you in the core of your soul.
Of course, it helps that he and writer Sergio G Sanchez have developed characters with a little bit more juice than American thrillers would. Laura, played delicately by Belen Rueda, is a complex but caring mother. Her past and her future collide as she is devastated by her son’s disappearance. Rueda not only captivates us with the spooky fears that The Orphanage offers but the realistic sadness and distress of losing a child. She is a leading protagonist who gets under our skin much more than the spectres do. Her support are fantastic too; Fernando Cayo as Carlos the just as troubled father is an outstanding voice of reason and Montserrat Carulla is eerie as the mysterious social worker.
The Orphanage is usually over sold in the U.K. and America as being Guillermo Del Torro’s work (he produced the film) which I believe is wrong. Although his influence and input are in here, it is very much a testament to Bayona’s talent. In fact, The Orphanage is his first feature work and he has since gone on to make weepy The Impossible and this year’s brilliant and emotionally astute A Monster Calls. Bayona knows how to play emotions like a fine piano and The Orphanage is his concerto.