For close to a decade, American horror filmmakers have been far outpaced by their European counterparts. In fact, aside from maybe Eli Roth, I can't think of another Stateside gore-teur that's consistently pushed the envelope and told an engaging, original story that didn't rip off other horror classics or simply rehash tired, thin cliches.
Spain and France have been horror hotbeds, particularly in the last few years, with films like High Tension, The Others and grim fantasies such as Pan's Labyrinth making a big splash in America. The Orphanage, a project overseen by Guillermo del Toro, one of Mexico's big directorial guns at present (and the man who gave life to Pan's Labyrinth), is the latest salvo from Spain, a film that blends fantasy, reality and nightmare to thrilling, chilling effect.
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and written by Sergio G. Sanchez, The Orphanage is a film undeniably under the influence of del Toro, yet manages to foster a sensibility all its own. Certainly, Bayona takes some cues from del Toro (mainly in the gore department), but where del Toro is given to fantastical plot twists, Bayona prefers to mix a little grit with his fairy-dust.
Laura (Belen Rueda, who starred in The Sea Inside) was raised in an austere, vaguely Gothic orphanage on a beautiful, remote section of Spain's coast. Now grown, with a family of her own -- husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) -- Laura insists on returning to the orphanage of her youth to live and provide shelter for handicapped orphans. It's not long before she learns a heartbreaking truth about her adopted son and some dark, disturbing secrets about the orphanage she's called home for so much of her life. Without warning, Simon goes missing and Laura finds herself locked in a battle with her mind and the supernatural, desperately trying to hold on as everything around her begins to crumble.
The plot of Bayona's film is deceptively simple, but particularly in the final 15 minutes, packs quite an emotional wallop. Rueda is exceptional throughout (and the eerie turn by Geraldine Chaplin as a medium -- and speaking flawless Spanish -- also merits mention) and the scares are well-paced -- there are just as many moments of atmospheric creepiness as there is out-and-out bloodiness. The Orphanage, a poignant, potent work of skill and verve, is one of 2007's strongest horror-fantasy offerings and more proof that most American audiences are content to lap up garbage like Prom Night.
The Orphanage is a drab, grim film, punctuated only briefly by sunshine and bright colors, yet the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is gorgeous, ably handling the numerous sequences that transpire in darkness. The level of detail is absorbing and thankfully, the scenes never dissolve into abstract muddiness. Crisp, vivid and spotless, this is a magnificent visual rendering of a film that depends upon its eye-catching compositions.
The evocative, spine-tingling soundtrack is as essential to conveying mood in The Orphanage as the visuals, but fortunately, Bayona's film arrives on region one DVD outfitted with not one, but two killer soundtracks (both of which are in the film's native Spanish). Viewers can choose between a Dolby Digital 5.1-EX track or a DTS-ES 6.1 discrete track; I sampled both throughout the course of the film and the DTS track ever-so-slightly edged out the Dolby Digital track in terms of warmth and detail. However, both do a top-notch job of replicating dialogue, score and sound effects. An optional Dolby 2.0 stereo track is also included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
While other regions seem to have been the recipients of more elaborate special editions of The Orphanage, the film's relative cult status in the States seems to have resulted in a more stripped down DVD. Still, what's presented here is worth sifting through for fans of the film. All the featurettes are presented in Spanish (and anamorphic widescreen), but have forced English subtitles. The 17 minute, 37 second featurette "When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage" is a standard behind-the-scenes piece, while the five-part, 10 minute and 16 second featurette "Tomas' Secret Room: The Filmmakers" goes into a bit more detail about specific aspects of the film and its creators. The nine minute, 22 second "Horror in the Unknown: Make-Up Effects" explores exactly what its title describes, while the three minute, 42 second "Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read" is likewise self-explanatory. A still gallery, which contains images of the cast, make-up effects, set design and locations, black and white photography, production and conceptual art. The marketing campaign section houses the Spanish theatrical teaser and trailer, along with the U.S. theatrical teaser and trailer and a poster gallery, while trailers for Pan's Labyrinth, Amusement, The Sickhouse, One Missed Call and Otis complete the disc.
The Orphanage, a poignant, potent work of skill and verve, is one of 2007's strongest horror-fantasy offerings and more proof that most American audiences are content to lap up garbage like Prom Night. Highly recommended.