Today Tex has sent in his review for New Line Home Entertainment’s DVD release of the Spanish horror pic, The Orphanage, which arrives at retailers on Blu-ray and DVD April 22. I personally didn’t like the film, so inside you’ll find another opinion from someone who loves it. In the Guillermo del Toro produced film, Laura returns to the house where she was raised, and decides to transform it into an orphanage. Soon, her son, Simón, makes an invisible friend…
A recurrent theme in Spanish films revolves around childhood tragedy. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, PAN’S LABYRINTH, LA MONJA, THE OTHERS, FRÁGILES and even the 2002 film DARKNESS all evidence this theme. The theme is of course not totally endemic to Spanish cinema, as it can clearly be seen in an unending succession of productions from Asia as well. And, like J-horror and it’s off-shoots these Castilian Chillers have hallmarks all their own—measured moments of increasing dread, chromatic lighting schemes and senses of wonder that turn the productions into operas of Grimm Brothers-esque proportions. That fantasy element, that sense of the surreal in Spanish cinema has many faces but one chief architect—Guillermo del Toro.
When Guillermo del Toro’s name gets bandied about in the wide world of genre films, you can bet that the words Gothic Fairytale will be tossed about as well. With THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and the Oscar winning PAN’S LABYRINTH on his resume it’s easy for even the fair-weather genre fan to see where del Toro stands in the world of horror. THE ORPHANAGE’S J.A. (Juan Antonio) Bayona, on the other hand, is a different animal—a first-time feature filmmaker who cut his teeth in Spain’s music video market. Now, with the music video background in his court, Bayona’s ability to exact cutting-edge visuals hardly seems to be in doubt. So, with del Toro producing and Bayona directing, the question now becomes which filmmaker will exact the most influence over the production.
In a rural seaside Spanish enclave sits an orphanage, lost these many years to the ruins of time. Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have recently purchased the property and plan on using it to create a home for special needs children. It seems that Laura shares a special connection with the orphanage, having been adopted from there some thirty-years prior. She and Carlos also have an adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep). Simón carries with him a secret of his own but only his parents know of his illness. And, it’s the secrets—like the ones that lie within the walls of the orphanage—that cast the darkest shadows.
Soon after arriving, Simón begins to communicate with an invisible friend Tomás. Through a series of games Laura discovers that Simón has uncovered his adoption and his fatal illness. In a fit of rage, Simón later disappears. Six-months later, Laura is determined that her son is still alive and with the help of a Police Psychologist and a group of Paranormal Investigators, Laura will discover not only the horrific tragedy that befell the orphanage, but her ultimate role in its past and future.
At its heart, THE ORPHANAGE is a tragic fairy tale—A film about a mother’s unconditional love for her son. The love that causes a parent to keep a terrible secret from an innocent child is part and parcel to the same kind of love that would turn a loving mother into a vengeful monster to protect her family. Bayona’s film is bittersweet, and its true horror is in the realization that the character of Laura is fated to her destiny because of the secrets she—like the orphanage she once belonged to—kept.
Belén Rueda’s (THE SEA INSIDE) performance in the film is a revelation. She elicits every possible emotion and yet manages a restraint and composure in the most dire of circumstances. In essence, she fully embodies the stilted emotions of an adult who spent her childhood in an environment that is ill suited for a well-rounded growth. It’s one of the great performances I’ve seen this year and it’s coupled along side a cameo appearance, which left me speechless. Of course, none of these performances would exist without the screenplay from writer Sergio Sánchez and its true highlight is also tied indelibly with that cameo appearance.
In a sequence reminiscent of POLTERGEIST on acid, the legendary Geraldine Chaplin portrays Aurora—a psychic medium brought to the orphanage to investigate when Laura believes that spirits have abducted Simón. The flawless sequence as Aurora probes the house—through night-vision television footage—is one of the most intensely terrifying scenes I’ve witnessed in years…and virtually nothing is shown! In fact, in most of the film, virtually nothing happens. This is an R-rated film with almost no bloodshed, no violence and no language. Only the thematic elements and the overall sense of dread that permeate the production justify the designation.
If the film suffers at all, it only suffers from trying to cap its mortifying revelation with a feel-good ending. And the ending I describe is not the ending most will cite. It’s the final moments of the film, a need to justify itself, a need to explain something that needs no explanation, a moment—only a minute long—that force-feeds the audience the reality of the scene that preceded it. For a film that never once underestimated its viewer, it betrays them only moments before the final frames. Is it enough to tarnish the film? Hardly!
As for whose influence most pervades the production, it seems a tie. It’s easy to see del Toro’s touches throughout the production, including, perhaps, the recurrent theme of Peter Pan that—like the Alice in Wonderland elements of PAN’S LABYRINTH—ties the film not only to classic cinema but also to an illustrious literary tradition. It’s also easy to see visual elements of other Spanish Horror films echoed throughout the production, especially with Jaume Balagueró’s film DARKNESS that featured Second Unit Photography by ‘ORPHANAGE’ Cinematographer Óscar Faura. The final enveloping curtain is the brilliant orchestral score by Fernando Velázquez (THE BACKWOODS), which in many ways surpasses Javier Navarrete’s Oscar Nominated PAN’S LABYRINTH score in its sheer power and mood.
It is often said that film is the only true collaborative art form and while that may be subject to debate the fact remains that the cast and crew assembled to create THE ORPHANAGE attest to that idiom without reservation. THE ORPHANAGE crawls under your skin and leaves you reeling in the beauty and tragedy of the production. It’s a must see movie for anyone who claims to love cinema, but especially for fans of cerebral horror and “old dark house” tales.
THE ORPHANAGE is not billed as a Special Edition but the DVD release from New Line features quite a few bells and whistles, beginning with the most effective one—When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage (17:23). This behind the scenes documentary covers all the bases in the film featuring interviews with all the principal cast and crew members, including Guillermo del Toro and deconstructs the film from start to finish touching on casting, set construction, effects and score. In many ways it exceeds expectations for a featurette that is usually a fluff piece on production. It also makes the lesser featurette Tomás’ Secret Room (10:00) a bit redundant as that piece features five, two-minute clips that detail Director J.A. Bayona, the Score, the Art Direction, the Visual Effects and the Opening Credit Sequence. The only thing that gets a light brushing over in these features is the practical effects work of the crew at DDT Efectos Especalias. But all that is remedied momentarily.
David Martí and Montse Ribé who won an Academy Award for their work on PAN’S LABYRINTH share the stage once again in the featurette Horror In The Unknown: Makeup Effects (9:22). In their segment they focus mainly on the character makeup that is used to create the look of Tomás but still provide a reasonably in-depth look at some of the films other signature moments.
The final behind the scenes element is Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read (3:43). This short feature gives the audience a look at Bayona directing several of the cast members through the rehearsal process, specifically citing his work with the young Roger Príncep whose portrayal of Simón embodies the innocence of the production.
The rest of the release is rounded out with standard Theatrical Trailers and Television Spots as well as a fairly detailed Still Gallery. Especially interesting in the press material are a collection of 12 pieces of conceptual poster art that were created for the marketing of the film.
As it stands the superiority of the material included here only helps to enhance the overall quality of a film that already exceeds most in that category. Ultimately, if the film’s DVD release featured nothing, THE ORPHANAGE would still remain one of the must own DVD’s for 2008 and happily that is not the case.