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Overall Rating

Awesome: 6.12%
Worth A Look53.06%
Average: 34.69%
Pretty Bad: 6.12%
Total Crap: 0%

5 reviews, 19 user ratings

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Orphanage, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A good ghost story, mostly well told."
3 stars

This was going to be a negative review; I came out deflated, and if I'd written this right away, that probably would have been the theme. There is a great deal about this film that's good, though, and it's worth remembering that - the film did provide ninety-odd minutes of solid entertainment, even if the other ten stand out later on.

In the prologue, we see a young girl by the name of Laura being adopted from the orphanage of the title; she seems to be the healthiest child there, with many others being sickly or crippled. Thirty years later, the now-grown Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have purchased the property, moving there with adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) to re-open it as a facility for sick children. That Simón finds a new set of invisible friends initially concerns Carlos, but Laura is more concerned by elderly and nosy social worker Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), who makes a fine suspect when Simón vanishes during the facility's first open house.

The filmmakers do a lot very well. They found and created a great ghost-story location, as this orphanage has everything you could want - a large house in need of renovation, an enticing beach, caves, outbuildings, and even a lighthouse. The ugly secrets Laura and Carlos find out about the orphanage are shockingly nasty without resorting to simple gross-outs. Indeed, director J.A. Bayona does well by the "less is more" approach, not hitting the audience with much in the way of special effects for the first half; the simple sack with eyeholes over a child's head manages to be creepier than a creepy makeup or animation effect likely would be. When he does decide to go for the big jolts, they don't feel cheap at all, even if they do come from out of left field or are well-practiced.

Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez also do a nice job of giving themselves the paranormal option early on - and indeed, making that the most likely explanation - but leaving themselves room for more conventional explanations. A scene with paranormal investigators and mediums is one of the most fair I've seen in this type of movie (fair in that, for story purposes, it doesn't make either the believer or skeptic characters look foolish). It's important, because much of the film is about Laura becoming obsessed and distraught over her missing child, and having "normal" concerns feel smaller and less important than the mystical ones would hurt it. Similarly, the single most important event in the movie has nothing to do with the supernatural, and could otherwise feel like Bayona and Sánchez had played a trick on the audience in a not-fun way.

Belén Rueda is given the job of anchoring the movie, and does a fine job. I love the way she relates to Roger Príncep as Simón; Laura clearly adores him above all else, but she's not perfect or one-note in her love. She gets irritated and angry at him, and even after we've learned that Simón is HIV-positive, her occasional frustration doesn't seem mean. By the second half of the movie, she's getting obsessed and desperate, and even though we're pretty sure that this is a ghost story by then, it still comes across as something approaching madness rather than her being the only sane person in the film.

It's not quite a one-woman show, but everyone else is clearly supporting her. Cayo gets "skeptical spouse" duties, but does a fine job of making Carlos as torn up as Laura even if he doesn't grasp at the supernatural explanation. Príncep maybe lays the cute on a bit thick as Simón, but it's not crippling. And Carulla makes Benigna menacing despite her advanced years.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for otherwise good movies to have trouble at the end, especially ghost stories, and The Orphanage falls prey to the "too many endings" problem. What's worse is that unlike movies that flail around, trying to find something that works or squeeze one more shock in, this movie hits the jackpot on the first try, finding the cruelest and most devastating revelation possible. What comes after does a good job of playing to the film's larger themes, true, but also softens the blow. And then, there's one last coda that tries to correct it in the other direction, to the point where the previous gut punch has been thoroughly muted.

And I've got to admit, that hurt the movie for me. If it had ended five minutes earlier, it's one of my favorite ghost stories ever. Instead, it's pretty good, worth checking out for what it does well, but well below its potential.

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originally posted: 02/16/08 11:50:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2007 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2007 series, click here.

User Comments

9/22/17 morris campbell not bad the devils backbone is alot better imo 3 stars
4/11/12 Flipsider No suspense or scares, predictable and tedious story. 2 stars
9/27/11 The Big D It has a few genuinely scary scenes, but is actually more heartwarmer than horror. 4 stars
8/12/11 jiropan stunning cinematography........dark and atmospheric....excellent dark fairytale movie 5 stars
7/06/09 MP Bartley More a tragedy than horror, but some skilfully constructed scares. Rueda is terrific. 4 stars
1/12/09 TreeTiger Spanish drama queens - overacting galore... 2 stars
8/29/08 Shaun Wallner Great Horror film!! Kept me on the edge of my seat 5 stars
6/10/08 Beau spooky & well done, pans labyrinth was better, this film lacked something for me though.. 3 stars
5/13/08 damalc really f-ing creepy, sad and uplifting all at once. 4 stars
4/24/08 Quigley Has some creepy moments and is superbly shot, but it is overwhelmed by genre cliches. 4 stars
4/08/08 Dan gripping and atmospheric - brilliant. 4 stars
3/23/08 A.G.Debelmas it is a movie about madness, it is brilliant 5 stars
3/22/08 Gaz Wow rob that is a truly awful review, very lazy. 4 stars
3/03/08 Nicholas Plowman Very spooky - a few surprises and twists, it is a little slow 3 stars
2/18/08 blyskalp Good movie 3 stars
2/18/08 debdahlin like a good ghost story - worth seeing at least once 4 stars
1/18/08 Brian Mckay Shades of "The Devil's Backbone", though not quite as good. A bit longer than necessary. 4 stars
1/14/08 Ole Man Bourbon While the lead is great and some scene compelling, film's often tedious and outright silly. 3 stars
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  28-Dec-2007 (R)
  DVD: 22-Apr-2008



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