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The Orphanage (2007)

New Line Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 4/22/2008

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 4/16/2008

I hope that no one takes this the wrong way, but what is wrong with Spanish filmmakers? Over the past few years, I've seen several Spanish horror/thrillers and they often carry a dark tone which permeates the entire movie. Also, I've noticed a trend where children are in peril. Movies such as The Nameless, The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, and The Others offer little to no humor and don't shy away from having bad things happen to good people. Maybe there's something in the water. This aside, the movies rarely fail to satisfy, and the latest offering, The Orphanage, may be the best of the bunch.

In The Orphanage, Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), move into a huge house which was once an orphanage. In fact, Laura lived there as a child before she was adopted. They play to renovate the building and open a home for children with special needs. They arrive with their son, Simon (Roger Princep), who has a penchant for playing with imaginary friends. Not long after arriving, Simon announces that he's met six children in the house and that they want to play with him. Simon even shows Laura a game which the children have taught him. On the day where an open house is being held, tragedy strikes thrusting Laura and Carlos into a nightmare. Even worse, Laura isn't sure what happened that day. Was she attacked by one of the children, or was it a ghost? Laura become determined to learn the truth, and she begins to suspect that a supernatural presence has taken control of the old orphanage. Laura must dig through the history of the orphanage and her own memory in order to save her family.

In my recent review for Inside, I spoke of an affinity for EuroHorror. However, my main gripe about this subgenre is a lack of emphasis on the "horror" part. These films often offer artistic photography, shocking violence, unabashed sexuality, or serious messages, but they are rarely truly scary or even creepy. I'm happy to report that The Orphanage bucks this trend. This movie clearly follows some of the EuroHorror trends, but it's also very serious about scaring the audience.

And while The Orphanage is clearly intent on being a scary movie, it's interesting to note that it doesn't try anything flashy or over-the-top to accomplish this goal. This is good, old-fashioned horror in the vein of The Changeling, Don't Look Now, or Poltergeist. Director J.A. Bayona, writer Sergio G. Sanchez (under the guiding hand of producer Guillermo Del Toro) are presumably fans of atmospheric, classic horror, as they use the haunting visuals in the film to tap into very basic fears. And while the movie isn't a roller-coaster ride of thrills (more on that in a moment), it does contain some truly memorable scenes. Few won't get a chill the first time that the hooded ghost (?) confronts Laura. Also, there's a scene at the end with a child's game which is very well shot and must go on the list of creepiest scenes ever. (This scene reminded me of the finale of John Carpenter's The Fog.) The Orphanage even contains a seance scene! When was the last time that you saw one of those?! The seance was a mainstay of 70s horror and the segment in this film is a textbook piece on controlled subtlety. The movie does contain one gore scene, but it's shown very quickly, keeping with the understated approach.

The Orphanage isn't only here to be a fright machine. The movie offers an interesting story which is another key piece to the film's success. Beyond the horror angle, there's also a mystery going on here, and it's clues and resolution are very well-played. One of the most refreshing aspects of this film is that it contains a "child in peril" plot, but it doesn't use this in an exploitative way. Instead, this is the jumping off point to show how dedicated Laura and Carlos are (or aren't) to solving the mystery. The characters feel real here, and thus we are able to understand and appreciate their emotions. This air of reality only helps to elevate the horror in the supernatural scenes.

While The Orphanage is an impressive film, it's not without its problems. This is another movie to add to the "Hey, wait a minute..." file. While watching the film, The Orphanage is very engrossing, but once it's over, you'll begin to dwell on the plotholes. Questions like "Who was in the cave?", "How did he get in there?", "Who was in the hall?" will immediately begin to assault your mind. Also, the fact that Laura has returned to the orphanage where she once lived is never really brought into play. Perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to avoid a stereotype, but I expected the movie to have Laura's flashbacks, but this never comes into play. In fact, the story goes in the opposite direction where Laura doesn't remember things that she should. (And you'll be asking, "How could she not remember that?!") The movie is also very slowly paced at times. While the key scary scenes mentioned above will have you on the edge of your seat, some viewers may feel that the rest of the film drags.

After having been letdown by some recent foreign releases which received good word-of-mouth, I was hesitant about The Orphanage. For once, the movie delivered, as it revealed itself to be a movie which takes its scares seriously. While it's not quite the masterpiece that some have made it out to be, it's a sold horror movie which can be placed beside some of the classics of the genre. Now, if only I could get the image of that burlap mask out of my head.

The Orphanage haunts DVD courtesy of New Line Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer is very good, as the image is quite sharp and clear. I detected no overt grain here and the image is free of defects from the source material. The colors look very good, especially during the open house scene. The image is well-balanced, as this is a dark film which uses lots of shadows, but the action is always visible. The DVD contains only the original Spanish language tracks with easy-to-read English subtitles. The disc has a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track and a DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete track. Both tracks provide clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, and the surround effects really come into play in certain scenes, such as the seance. There are some moments where the subwoofer action is notable, such as when Laura is running down the beach.

The Orphanage DVD contains a nice assortment of extras. "When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage" (18 minutes) is a making-of featurette which offers a ton of behind-the-scenes footage and many comments from teh cast and filmmakers. It pays a great deal of attention to the actors and their characters. It also profiles Director J.A. Bayona and Guillermo Del Toro's involvement with the film. The piece also touches on the look of the movie and the music. "Tomas' Secret Room: The Filmmakers" (10 minutes) offers interviews with the creative team behind the film and gives an inside look at the music, the sets, the digital effects, and the title sequence. In "Horror in the Unknown: Make-up Effects" (9 minutes) effects artists Montse Ribe and David Marti talk about the make-up effects in the film and their work with Bayona. We see how the designs evolved and there is some footage of the make-up being applied. "Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read" (4 minutes) offers comments from Bayona and some nice video of rehearsals. The DVD contains a STILL GALLERY, as well as two Spanish Trailers and two U.S. Trailers. The final extra is "Poster Explorations" which shows various ideas for the film's one-sheet.

New Line Home Entertainment has also brought The Orphanage to Blu-ray Disc. The film is letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the disc holds a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image here is razor sharp, as it shows no grain or defects. The clarity of the image gives it a nice amount of depth. The picture is also very detailed, and there is no video noise or pixellation to be had here. The colors look fantastic. Again, the open house scene offers a rainbow of colors which contrast very nicely to the darker scenes in the film. The Blu-ray Disc offers a Spanish DTS-HD MA 7.1 track. This track provides crystal clear audio and sound effects. Again, go to the open house scene and hear how the conversation of the crowd is nicely separated from the chirping birds and Laura's calling. The amount of detailed audio in this scene is staggering. The track consistently produces impressive stereo effects along with some nice surround sound during key scenes.

The extras on the Blu-ray Disc are identical to those found on the DVD.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long