Orphanage, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/28/07 00:00:00

"You'll Never Look At Burlap The Same Way Again"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Although 2007 has been an especially good and fruitful year for cinema as a whole, it hasn’t exactly been a particularly fertile one for horror fans. While there have been such occasional glimmers of hope as “The Mist,” “The Host” and the first two-thirds of “Wind Chill,” the multiplexes this year have largely been overrun with useless sequels, remakes, retreads and rip-offs–to list them all would take too long and be too depressing for any of us to contemplate. Happily, the last-minute arrival of the Spanish import “The Orphanage” is a true holiday miracle–in just 105 short, sweet and decidedly spooky minutes, it gives the entire genre a much-needed shot in the arm with what is perhaps the most sensationally effective ghost story to come along since “The Others.”

As the film opens, Laura (Belen Rueda) returns to the long-abandoned beachfront orphanage where she spent part of her childhood with the hopes of reopening it as a sanctuary for disabled children. As she and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), set about straightening up the place in anticipation of their first arrivals, their young son, Simon (Roger Princep), begins talking about the new and seemingly imaginary playmates that he has found. His insistence that they exist is unnerving enough for Laura but when they come in concert with the mysterious arrival of a creepy social worker (Montserrat Carulla) and Simon’s inadvertent discovery that he is both adopted and suffering from a terminal illness sparks an angry confrontation between the two that is followed by the boy’s sudden disappearance. There is more–a lot more–but I will leave you to discover what happens next along with the beleaguered but surprisingly resourceful Laura.

To be honest, “The Orphanage” probably won’t win any prizes for originality as the story that screenwriter Sergio Sanchez has come up with clearly bears the influence of “The Shining,” “Peter Pan” and certain works from Henry James and Shirley Jackson. However, as anyone who has listened to an especially eerie tale around a campfire late at night can attest, the secret to a good ghost story lies not in the tale itself but in the way that it is told and in that respect, the film is a knockout. Making his feature directorial debut, Juan Antonio Bayona displays a masterful ability for creating a palpable sense of atmosphere and tension without resorting to the hackneyed cliches of the genre–the extended sequence in which a parapsychologist (Geraldine Chaplin) investigates the house lacks any overt gore or “BOO!” moments but nevertheless inspires more genuine chills in a few minutes than the entire “Saw” series. The film is also aided by an impressive central performance from Belen Rueda, whom you might remember from “The Sea Inside,” as Laura–this is the kind of role that is far trickier than it seems (if we don’t believe that she believes in the strange events going on around her, the entire enterprise falls apart) and yet she never once hits a false note

While “The Orphanage” may not be the instant classic that some people have already dubbed it–some of the surprise revelations may seem a little too familiar to hard-core genre fans–and the comparisons to last year’s visionary masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” are due more to Guillermo del Toro’s presence as executive producer than anything else. That said, this is an extremely effective spook story from start to finish and I can pretty much guarantee that once you see it, it will be a long time before you can look at a burlap bag again without feeling a shiver go down your spine.

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