If I were to make a list of everything that scares me it’d go along the lines of wasps, fire, zombies, Animal from the muppets, and small creepy dead children. If The Orphanage featured any more than the one item from this list, it’d be probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. And also the most surreal. Thankfully though it keeps with just small creepy dead children, and leaves the flaming zombie wasps and crazy pink puppet drummers out of it.
So rather than nightmarish terror, it’s simply bloody scary. The plot is a pretty basic ghost story, with a big house full of a grisly history, and therefore grisly ghosties knocking about. Said house used to be an orphanage, and its past inhabitant Laura (Belen Rueda) moves back in as an adult with her doctor husband and adopted son Simon. Little Simon already has some imaginary friends but his new abode offers new playmates, only these ones might not be as imaginary as you’d like. What follows is an ever increasing series of poo-your-pants scares and hide-behind-your-coat set-ups.
What differentiates this film from many other paint-by-numbers fright-fests is the emotional ties you develop with the characters and the more measured approach to the tone. Many horrors feature failed models running around with few clothes on, making stupid decisions (to quote the great Eddie Izzard: “I heard a noise in the woods. I’ll go and investigate - and I’ll take a thimble with me for protection.”) You generally don’t care about the characters and are more interested in watching them get picked off one by one than actually wanting them to survive. But Laura is introduced carefully, letting us see her caring and fun side, the great mother-figure, so that when she starts doing dumb things like checking out the strange noise or heading into the darkened corridor, you know that she’s doing it for a reason. She’s scared but determined, and though you’re scared too, you also want her to succeed.
It’s a good sign when the producer is Guillermo del Toro, the director of CF top 10 Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, which The Orphanage has been compared to. But The Orphanage lacks the depth and odd-beauty of the superior Backbone, being tied down to ghost horror clichés and occasional cheap scares. I throw this criticism in the works to explain why it doesn’t gain a higher CF rating. The Orphanage is still a powerful, cleverly crafted piece of film, with some extraordinary directing from Juan Antonio Bayona that makes some scenes like the 1-2-3 game just insanely tense.
It didn’t give me nightmares, but was scary enough to make me turn on every light in my house that evening just to eradicate the chances of a hidden ghostie, and to whimper in misery the following day when my friend appeared with a pillow-case over her head, growling softly. The meanie. So for chills with an emotional core, The Orphanage brightens up spring with a CF2. Don your best pair of brown trousers and go watch.