You know that feeling when you watch a movie because there’s so much hype around it only to be disappointed, not because the movie was bad, but because of the hype you have set unrealistic standards?
That sums up how I felt about AJ. Bayona’s film debut – El Orfanato (The Orphanage). The film is widely regarded as one of the reputable horror flicks to have emerged out of Spain, the other being the [REC] series.
The story is premised around orphans, because kids in horror movies already provide an ample amount of creepiness – they’re much more so if they have an unknown past. Take Damian from The Omen, for example.
Our main character is Laura, who was raised in an orphanage and grew up wanting to help other orphans in need. Along with her husband, Carlos, they buy the manor which used to be her orphanage but has since closed.
Abandoned manors are already creepy enough, more so if they’re European manors. What’s even better for a horror is if that abandoned manor used to be an orphanage, which closed down abruptly, for no known reason.
Well it turns out the motive for the orphanage ceasing operations was sinister after all, but I’ll leave that for would-be viewers to find out for themselves.
Back to Laura, not only has she decided to live in her former orphanage and run it in kind for special-needs orphans – she has also adopted an orphan boy herself, named Simon.
Any horror movie fan can see where this is going.
The boy starts exhibiting weird behavior such as having imaginary friends. As the movie progresses, these imaginary friends begin expressing factual secrets to Simon – even going as far as telling him he’s adopted. This leads Laura to become seriously worried, although I’d argue that having dialogues with imaginary friends was already a red flag in the first place.
Then little Simon becomes a tad less innocent when he starts asking grim questions, from “I’m not going to grow up,” to “When are we going to die, mommy?”
This was a highlight of the movie, the seemingly natural demeanor of the child while asking morbid questions raised the creepiness level up a notch. Kudos to the child actor portraying Simon as well, Roger Princep.
Speaking of creepy characters, an honorable mention is Benigna – an elderly lady who introduces herself to be a social worker. The true nature of her identity is integral to the storyline hence it would spoil the film if I explained in better detail, what I will say is that this character goes out in a GRUESOME way.
The unexpected dose of gore was another positive of this film, that had a lot of horror cliches throughout but surprised viewers here and there.
The storyline does pan out a bit sluggishly, but as the puzzle pieces started coming together viewers are able to appreciate the true nature of the film: an emotional depiction of motherhood but through the narrative of the horror genre.
El Orfanato excels as a film because it does a perfect job of combining a drama and a horror, reminiscent of a Guillermo del Toro film. Which makes it no surprise that the acclaimed director was one of the producers for this movie.
Before I watched it, what I mostly heard was that this was the “scariest horror you will ever see!” I was foolish enough to think that such a movie fitting that description would exist, since after all it comes down to perception – and we all have different perceptions.
Some find Aliens v.s. Predators a horror movie, I don’t. Some find The Orphanage a psychological horror film, I don’t. It is more fitting of a psychological drama film, or a thriller-drama in the same mold as Shutter Island.
Does this make the film bad? No, it does not.
The Orphanage was a sublime story-telling of the struggles of being an orphan, the difficulty of fitting in not just in society but into a new family – something which foster kids are familiar of. But above all, it was also a grim narration of the struggles of a mother dealing with an extraordinary boy.
This film deserves a watch, especially if you would like to see an artistic touch to a horror movie that is devoid of the more contemporary horror movies.
As for a grade, I’ll put this down under the B+ bracket.