Film Review: The Orphanage

You know someone in the film business has really made it big when his credit as a producer alone is enough to sell a movie. That’s the case with The Orphanage, which comes, as the movie poster boasts “from producer Guillermo del Toro.”

Del Toro’s only one of the seven producers credited for working on the film, which is actually written by Sergio G. Sánchez and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, but emphasizing his involvement isn’t simply empty marketing. The look and feel of The Orphanage, or the spookier sounding El Orfanato in the original Spanish, does feel heavily informed by del Toro’s work, particularly his little-seen 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone/El Espinazo del Diablo, which similarly dealt with Spanish speaking orphans and the supernatural.

Laura (Belén Rueda) was an orphan who grew up in a spooky old beachside orphanage. As a (rather shapely) adult and young mother, she and her doctor husband (Fernando Cayo) return to the now abandoned orphanage. They’re planning to reopen it as a school for sick children, like their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep), who is HIV positive.

A lonely and imaginative boy, he increasingly talks about his imaginary friends, evidence of whom Laura discovers. When Simón disappears from the house, Laura and Carlos freak out, as their son needs daily medicine to stay alive, and it falls on Laura to unravel the mysteries of the haunted orphanage to save her son.

Antonio creates several indelible images, including a child in a dirty school uniform with a scarecrow sack over its head—a fresh version of the creepy child archetype that’s been stuck in a post-Ring J-Horror iteration the past few years—and a killer scene in which a tag-like game is used to summon spirits.

But while moments like these—and a pretty gross one involving CPR on an accident victim missing her lower jaw—make for a fine horror movie, The Orphanage transcends the genre ghetto by succeeding as a story as much as a scare-factory.

Sánchez and Bayona have constructed their film as a fairly complicated narrative, a remarkably unified whole in which little to no information is wasted, and many scenes reflect back on previous and later ones, changing the way you perceive them at later points. That is, it’s not just a good horror movie, but a good movie period, an accomplishment that is as welcome as it is fairly rare.

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  • Amy

    Just saw this film last night and really enjoyed it. I even freaked myself out getting up to go the bathroom in the middle of the night and I can’t remember the last time that happened.

    Please don’t read further if you have not seen the film – I have a question that may be a spoiler…
    I believe, like Pan’s Labyrinth, that this is one of those films where you are never really sure if its real or just in the character’s mind. I tend to believe that it was her own despair that led her to the end, however, that in way makes it more interesting than actual ghosts – although god knows I love my horror!!

    Question: My boyfriend and I could explain away everything that happened that pointed to it all being in her head – no actual ghosts.

    However, when she goes into the closet at the end to put the doorknob on the door she has to peel back wallpaper to get to the doorknob – how is that possible without the intervention of spooky children ghosts?

    I had my hands over my eyes but my boyfriend swears that she had to peel it off, meaning that it was not left the way that Simone left it. It also would correspond with the title credits with the wallpaper tearing graphics….

    If wall paper actually covered up the knob – it would change our thoughts on this. Please tell us what you think!!???

  • LA scientist

    I just came back from the movie and had the exact same thought about the wallpaper! I think it was a sly way for Guillermo del Toro to leave open the interpretation that it really was ghosts, and not that perhaps the rational interpretatoin may not be right.

  • Indi

    She did not have to peel off anything to reveal the hole in which the doorknob went, but it’s kind of like, um…you know how it’s easier to remove a key from its hole than it is to search for the hole when you’re trying to unlock a door? She noticed the wall in the closet was hollow and when she couldn’t find a doorknob, she saw the small hole and peeled away some wallpaper to make sure it was for the doorknob.

  • I almost didn’t watch it because of the subtitles, but thought it couldn’t hurt to at least see if I like it. Boy am I glad I did! I even did a post on my blog after watching it.

    Responses to questions could spoil the movie – stop reading if you haven’t seen it and plan to.

    I agree with Indi. She saw the hole where the door knob fit, it wasn’t covered with paper. She only peeled the paper to see if it was an actual door, or just a whole in the wall. The door was covered with the same paper as the wall, but you can see the separation if you look carefully. If you are a Netflix member, you can watch it online under ‘watch instantly’. That way you can see the details over and over without renting it.

    I believe the ghosts were real and not her imagination. The proof was in the psychic, the home videos and the incinerated bodies before she ever found her son. The psychic actually told her (not in so many words) that the only way she was gonna get her son back was to kill herself.

    When the collision scene happened, it was like the opening scene of Disturbia all over again. Everything’s going just fine, calm, even the music makes you feel fine. Then WHAM! I jumped straight up out of my chair and yelled “Oh My God!”. And I was watching this during broad daylight! I am no sissy, so for me to do this, I take my hat off to Del Toro. I tend to expect these things to happen in movies. I didn’t expect that collision!

    I had no idea foreign films with subtitles could be so good. Good acting, good fx, good all around. I am now searching out other foreign films to see, just because of this excellent movie.

  • ashleigh

    This was such a great movie, but it realy confused me; did she kill her son when rushing to put away the pillar type things into the cupboard?

    And i believe that it was neither meant to be ghosts or her imagination. Its completely open to interpretation and is just what you believe to be true. Remember this is a deeply phsycological film and a clever director.

    Although at first slightly put out by the subtitles i am glad i continued watching. This was a brilliant film and although not as scary as i first expected, was very deep and sad and to be honest a generaly cute film.