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There is something to the marketing of foreign films and the way Hollywood tries its hardest to fool the public into thinking it is an English language movie. By not allowing any characters to speak in the trailers, giving away their secret with subtitles, someone like me, knowing it’s foreign, is able to get a glimpse at the style and tone without really learning anything about the plot to ruin my surprise upon sitting in the theatre. This aspect worked perfectly for Guillermo Del Toro’s production of El Orfanato. I had very little idea of what I was getting into and this film ended up being the best atmospheric horror I have seen since Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, (I don’t count Del Toro’s own El Laberinto del fauno because that was more fantasy than anything else). I now ask what it is that all three of these films have in common? With this—J.A. Bayona’s feature debut—each is helmed by a Spanish director. I can’t think of a better nation making movies right now; the Spanish are doing everything right and this film just adds to bolstering that argument.

Bayona creates a mood and tone that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats, anticipating the scares that they know will shortly be coming. I was actually surprised how slow the introduction was and how carefully laid out all the story pieces were. We are led into this world, discovering the relationships between our lead roles and the vague past of the orphanage that once housed our heroine and now is about to become her home for special needs children. Like The Others, the spirits involved here are not necessarily violent or demonic. They have an agenda, for sure, but what may at first glance seem malevolent could be nothing of the kind. The orphans now haunting the establishment are only trying to play a game. By taking something you love, a scavenger hunt is begun. Following the clues is the only way the game can end and if successful, the children will grant you one wish. The rules are simple, except the circumstances are far from easily accessible. One must believe that the game can happen before he/she can truly take part. Without the belief that the spirits are in control, success can never be achieved.

The cast is led by a remarkable performance from Belén Rueda—who, as it turns out, had a wonderful turn in Amenábar’s latest Mar adentro. Her composure and beauty is shattered as she finds her son has been lost. Trying to keep herself together, taking in what the police, her husband, and the mediums enlisted to help on the paranormal aspect tell her, she is given the task to figure out for herself how far she is willing to go to find her son. Always captivating and never out of her element, Rueda carries the story and never looks back. The supporting players around her are all portrayed nicely as well. Fernando Cayo plays the husband watching his wife deteriorate before him while unable to open his mind to the possibility that what she says could be true; Geraldine Chaplin is magnificent as the psychic medium whose trance brings out a puzzle piece necessary to continue the game; and young Roger Príncep plays the child Simón with the right amount of innocence mixed with the knowledge and comprehension of his fate to help keep the bond between he and his mother strong.

Bayona never goes for the cheap thrills either as he builds up the tension with sounds and visuals. His use of the closing doors and the moving merry-go-round add a sense of foreboding that ends up being more important than you may initially guess. Stylistically too, the transition between the house’s current state of duress with the way it shone by the glow of the adjacent lighthouse from the past is expertly handled. There were numerous instances where the film could have gone off the rails to tragic effect, but he holds it steady throughout. More psychological than visceral, the scares are few, but effective. Even when the grotesque rears its head, it is to enhance the story, not to shock for shock alone. The sound work is utilized to the fullest too. What seems to be jarring and loud for the purpose to scare our lead and us is actually very important to the tale at hand. Nothing is shown or heard here that doesn’t have absolute relevance to the film as a whole.

The final third of the film comes quick and fully envelopes you into the proceedings. You are right there with Rueda’s character as she slowly uncovers the secrets hidden behind the years that have past since she last lived in the orphanage. Whereas a film from Hollywood—of late usually being a remake from a better horror film in Japan—would use this tension in order to hide the flimsy and lackluster conclusion it tacks on so as not to alienate those viewers who enjoy leaving the theatre with a smile, Bayona knows how to effectively end his tale the way it should. I was blown away by the handling of the final scene and the way he used the rules of the game to transition us from one reality to another. It is truly a remarkable feat that hits home hard emotionally, but I will actually say also succeeded in me leaving with a smile on my face. Whether you exit the theatre with your eyes moistened or not, you will not forget the beauty and perfection for which it concludes. The tagline is correct, for while it is a story of horror, it is above all else a tale of love.

El Orfanato 9/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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