So what you have here is a ghost story - note, not horror film – about a woman, Laura, who returns to the now abandoned orphanage that she spent her childhood in, planning to re-open it to the world. But when her son Simón starts playing with seemingly all-to-real imaginary friends, he vanishes not too long afterwards. Laura, in her desperate bid to find her son, is then pitted against the orphanage itself, and its might-be-real-might-not-be inhabitant. There are other nuances to the story, but to go into them would spoil the experience somewhat. Suffice to say, it’s an absolutely fantastic story, and importantly, it’s never sacrificed in favour of churning out scary or gruesome moments.
Not that it doesn’t lack scary moments; in fact, it’s positively teeming with scary imagery and incredibly creepy bits that will have you pressed against the back of your seat. It’s all excellently moderated by director Juan Antonio Bayona, holding together his debut feature film with a veteran’s steady hand. From one sequence which sees no visual scares, but rather opts for some spine-tingling audio as a medium wanders about the rooms of the orphanage, to another that bears the dubious honour of being the movie’s sole piece of viscera, it’s all beautifully shot, wonderfully scary, and yet somehow never lets you forget what’s going on in the story.
Interestingly, there’s very sparse use of CGI – with the focus being more on physical effects over the digital. Just like its use of proper scares instead of buckets of gore, this lack of CGI is incredibly refreshing in this genre, almost like it’s trying to hark back to the days of great, truly chilling horror films that stuck with you for days. What it does is serve to ground the film in reality, and that makes it all the more scary.
The film is grounded further by some startlingly good performances, not just by the core cast, but also by the supporting players. Belen Rueda brings a sort of angular urgency to her role as Laura, making it seem all the more real, with the looks of fear on her craggy, infinitely expressive face managing to transplant some of her terror onto the audience. Roger Princep is also fantastic, bringing a real child-like glee to the doomed – in more ways than one – Simón; his expressive eyes telling tales that some veteran actors fail to even think about putting across. The supporting performance than springs almost instantly to mind is that of Geraldine Chaplin – playing the aforementioned medium in the film’s most chilling sequence; her performance laden with gravity that transcends the language barrier until you actually not only start to see why Laura believes what she says, but almost start believe it yourself.
What’s more, there’s no true happy ending to this film, and that is a testament to not only Del Toro’s involvement, but also to the lack of any Hollywood studio execs intervening under the delusion that people want a bunnies and flowers happy ending. Instead, it finishes on a beautifully tragic note, and even I – being somewhat stalwart when it comes to movies and crying – had a tear rolling down my cheek. If it fails to affect you, you almost certainly left your soul in the cinema foyer.
The Orphanage – or El Orfanato, if we’re getting pretentious – is an absolutely extraordinary film, defying today’s horror conventions to create a film that will chill you to the very core, yet somehow leave you feeling bizarrely uplifted by the absolutely wonderfully told story and the gorgeously sad ending. See it, shake off the chills, then see it again.Ross' Rating: 9/10