Right now the horror genre has been kicked in the groin as PG-13 movies have watered down the marketplace and only a sliver of actually good thrillers manage to truly terrify as well as entertain. Torture porn dominates the landscape as well as does CGI ghouls and ghosties. Luckily there are filmmakers that still consider horror a viable genre and these filmmakers still treat movie making as an art form rather than simply a money making devise. At the forefront of this movement is Guillermo del Toro, and his name being attached as presenting The Orphanage will hopefully help ensure ticket sales for what is easily the best horror film in many years.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona has managed to craft a horror film that not only manages to give you all the moments a horror film should, including several moments to raise the hair on the back of your neck, as well as those moments that outright scare you, but he has also brought to life a story with heart and serious dramatic flair. It is no wonder Guillermo del Toro was attracted to this film enough to attach his name to it, it is right up his alley as it has the subtleties, the look and the love of Pan’s Labyrinth mixed into a twisted tale of horror.
The film plays on the age old technique of “children are creepy” and uses it beyond the traditionally effective devices. The story begins with an early glimpse into typical adolescent behavior as a group of orphans play a game similar to “Red Light, Green Light”. We are introduced to a young girl named Laura at the age of seven and we quickly advance 30 years into the future as the one-time orphan returns to her old orphanage with her husband and son in an effort to restore the old house and turn it into a home for disabled children.
As you may already expect, the house has something of a life of its own as history has left its mark, and Laura’s son Simon quickly becomes a part of its plot, the question is the house’s motivation and whether it is sinister or sincere. Simon begins dreaming up several imaginary friends and through an unsettling turn of events he soon learns he was adopted and faces a terminal illness that is sure to take his life sooner rather than later. However, it isn’t until Simon disappears and everyone but his mother has given up on his survival that the story really takes off.
Although led by a group of actors you wouldn’t know from a random person walking down the street, they all embody their characters to perfection. Each gives in to Bayona and his direction showing the director’s vivid imagination and excellent eye for sound and visual design should lead to a promising career. One such example is a scene involving a medium, shot entirely using night vision, and shot in such a way that you are only guided by darkness and sound. The thought of that scene alone is enough to raise the flesh on my arms.
For those looking for a comparison, the best I can think of would be the Nicole Kidman starrer The Others, a personal favorite of mine and also a film designed around the powerful use of sound and imagination minus the blood and gore most horror directors feel is necessary to scare an audience. It is nice to see helmers using the genre of horror as an art form rather than a device to churn out another blood bath. It shows the genre still has legs even if franchises such as Saw and Hostel aim to continue their tired ways.