Benjamin’s Stash

Kids say and see and believe the darndest things. Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep and Geraldine Chaplin star in The Orphanage.

The OrphanageCast of Characters:
Laura – Belen Rueda
Carlos – Fernando Cayo
Simon – Roger Princep
Pilar – Mabel Rivera
Benigna Escobeda – Montserrat Carulla
Enrique – Andres Gertrudix
Prof. Leo Balaban – Edgar Vivar
Aurora – Geraldine Chaplin

Director – J. A. Bayona
Screenplay – Sergio G. Sanchez
Producer – Mar Targarona, Joaquin Padro & Alvaro Agustin
Rated R for some disturbing content

Years after she herself was given up for adoption, Laura (Belen Rueda) returns to her former orphanage, now closed, accompanied by her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep). Her plan is to reopen the place as a center for disabled children.

It’s not long after that Simon claims to have befriended a young, imaginary boy named Tomas (Oscar Casas). At first, Laura and Carlos believe it’s just their kid being a kid, but after their son goes missing at the party they’re hosting, they begin to uncover secrets the home has been hiding for years.

In my Jaws review, I brought up Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb example: a bomb exploding under your table is a surprise, but a bomb not exploding under your table is suspense. That technique worked wonders for Jaws, and it does so here with The Orphanage. It doesn’t matter how many terrifying and creepy monsters you can throw at the screen. Sometimes the most frightening things are what’s near you, but still go unseen.

Director J. A. Bayona (who recently directed The Impossible, one of the best films of 2012), in his feature-film debut, and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez have made a simple yet highly thrilling ghost story. It works mainly ’cause they choose to bypass the run of the mill jolts viewers have become accustomed to with horror films, and instead slowly develop tension and panic that lingers throughout the course of the film. Through cinematographer Oscar Faura’s lens, Bayona creates an atmosphere of dread and haunting suspense and shows that simple filmmaking techniques such as lighting, location and the right use of sound prove to be far more effective in scaring the viewer than what any jump scene could accomplish.

Also, having Guillermo del Toro, who just prior to this made the masterpiece Pans Labyrinth, help by co-producing doesn’t hurt either.

I can’t divulge too much about Sanchez’s script, ’cause there are few twists and turns I don’t wanna spoil for you. That said, Sanchez crafts an effective mystery tale that blends fantasy and reality through the eyes of his lead protagonist Laura. We’re never sure whether the house is indeed haunted or if it’s all an illusion inside Laura’s head. Sure, things go bump in the night and she brings in paranormal researchers (a nice extended cameo appearance from Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine) to help ease her mind, and, of course, they tell her what she wants to hear. Sanchez and Bayona, though, wisely avoid the need to hold their audiences’ hands by leaving whether what Laura’s experiencing is real or just inside her head a mystery (I still haven’t spoiled anything, so no worries).

One strength that shouldn’t go unnoticed is Belen Rueda’s terrific performance. Bayona sets up the chilling setting and Sanchez delivers the story, but it wouldn’t have been as effective if not for Rueda’s ability to gain our sympathy for what her character’s going through. Her scenes between Fernando Cayo and Roger Princep (quite good here for a child actor) as her husband and son, respectively, are genuine and their relationships together are developed enough to help pack the climax with a satisfyingly emotional wallop.

Beautifully shot, well-acted and skillfully directed, The Orphanage is a thoroughly riveting ghost story that rattles our nerves more by what’s not seen than what is, and is also just as poignant and heartfelt as it is creepy. When horror films today seem to rely more on gore and jump scares, it’s refreshing to get a film that is able to evoke unsettling, spine-tingling scares without the need to fall back on cheap thrills.

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