Much like 2002’s “The Ring” did with Japanese horror, 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” introduced many to the emerging Spanish horror genre. Because of the film’s success, studios are bringing more Spanish horror films into theaters, the latest being director Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Orphanage.” Although a refreshing nod to classic horror films with surprisingly high production values, “Orphanage” unfortunately leaves plenty to be desired.
The film follows Laura (Belén Rueda), who, with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), decides to buy the orphanage she was raised in. Together, with their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep), they move in and renovate the building to become a home for children with special needs. Simón dislikes the house until he invents an imaginary friend who he calls Tomás. Believing it’s his way of coping with the situation, Laura leaves Simón alone until one day he goes missing. Laura then learns of a dark secret about the orphanage and begins to unravel a mystery that suggests Tomás may not be an imaginary friend, but rather a spirit haunting the orphanage who may know where Simón is.
The best aspect of “Orphanage” is its lack of blood and gore. With only a couple scenes that depict violence, “Orphanage” ends up relying more on subtle tricks to build tension and suspense. Lighting is used to create an eerie atmosphere and basic cinematography tricks help create tension. Characters hide in dark corners and the camera sometimes reveals only half of the setting. Simón interacts with his imaginary friends who are off-screen, teasing the viewer with the idea that they may be imaginary or they may be ghosts. It’s nice to see a horror film that does not rely on cheap shock value to scare audiences.
Where “Orphanage” disappoints is in its story. Nothing in the first two acts that drew me in. It’s not that the movie was done poorly – the dialogue and acting are both very good, especially for a horror film. But there was nothing about the plot that hooked me. The story follows a very simple formula: Laura and Simón run around the orphanage, Simón plays with his imaginary friends and Laura questions whether or not the house is actually haunted.
What didn’t help was the bland setting and mediocre soundtrack. I cannot figure out what Laura saw in the orphanage, because it looks extremely boring and uninspired. The music does very little to enhance the mood, which is an essential element of horror films.
But where “Orphanage” stumbles the most is in its pacing. Again, the first two acts of the movie were uninteresting and slow. Sometimes, I will sarcastically write that a movie was so boring it nearly put me to sleep. However, “Orphanage” now holds a rare distinction – a movie that nearly did just that. It’s not until the third act that things pick up, but not to a level that makes up for the first two-thirds of film. The movie spins its wheels and ends up going nowhere. The film’s eventual resolution is both extremely predictable and corny — not a good way to end a horror film.
The last few scenes are instrumental in delivering the film’s underlying message, which is a very optimistic one. Maybe that’s why I feel saddened in giving “Orphanage” a bad review. The film has some positives, but in the end there are one too many flaws for me to recommend it. If you’re a fan of classic horror, and are desperate for a movie that doesn’t start with the word “Saw,” then you may appreciate this a bit more than I did. Otherwise, I’d wait for the DVD.