Review: ‘The Orphanage’

Poltergeist meets The Others in a satisfying story about what you believe.

Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage where she grew up as a child and, with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), begins to restore it as a private home. Her son, Simón (Roger Príncep), introduces Laura to a secret game he plays to find a chain of missing valuables. When the game’s ending ominously leads to secrets Laura has kept from her son, Sim?³n blames his newfound imaginary friends for setting the game up. After the visit and banishment by Laura of a mysterious stranger with intimate knowledge of Sim?³n, the boy turns up missing during a party being held at the orphanage. Laura sinks into despair as the days turn into months with no clue as to the boy’s whereabouts until Laura finds an out-of-place object: someone is playing Simón’s game, and Simón himself may be the prize.

The Orphange (or El Orfanato in its native Spanish; the film is subtitled in English) bills itself as “A tale of love… a story of horror.” This is a very accurate statement about what you’re in for without giving too away much, but if you let it in, a satisfying payoff is waiting on the other side. Director and writer Guillermo del Toro championed this tale himself in an effort to get in into the public eye, and from his body of work (from Blade 2 to Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth), it’s easy to see what he finds fascinating about it. You’ll never watch children playing “Red Light, Green Light” the same way again.

The main plot revolves around two elements: the orphanage itself and Simón’s game. The history of the orphanage is slowly revealed through pleasant flashbacks from Laura’s childhood memories, and all we’re initially told is that the orphanage closed down sometime after Laura was adopted (cue the ominous music). Simón’s game is curiously simple, which also makes it a great plot device. Something small and valuable goes missing, and in its place is a clue to where it is hidden. Figure out where the clue goes and you find another one until you retrieve the original missing item and win the game. Between the secret history and this clue-finding game, the atmosphere for this film constantly alternates between dread and curiosity; keep searching and you learn a secret, but how horrible is what you’ll find? Better yet, who (or what) is leaving the clues?

The Orphanage has all the earmarks of a European thriller: the newlywed couple, the curiously odd child, a remote location, and the huge old house that everyone wants to make their own home that will double as the setting for their misfortune. There are gaps in the continuity, hard to fill time frames that are important to the story but also feel as though they are missing, but in compensation, the soundtrack is happily absent during some of the most tense parts of the film and allowing the silence to have an effect. Overall, The Orphanage finishes with a unique ending that leaves a lasting impression.

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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