Cliches aside, 'Orphanage' is scary indeed

Posted: January 11, 2008

"The Orphanage" is the first horror movie I've seen in a while that's scary enough to send people out of the theater.

It was right about the time that a mangled corpse suddenly grabbed the hand of a bystander that the couple next to me arose and fled - and by then, the young woman had slid low enough in her seat that she couldn't see anything anyway.

Funny thing is, "The Orphanage" (it's Spanish-language) is kind of a woman's movie, and not the kind of horror film whose main goal is to frighten or disturb folks.

It's a spooky testament to the maternal bond - centered on a mother (Belen Rueda) who returns to the orphanage where she was raised, hoping to reopen it as a facility for special-needs children.

She's adopted a son of her own, Simon, who has an unspecified illness that requires him to take a pill periodically. The building is remote and empty, Simon is alone, and he fills the hours with conjuring play dates with imaginary friends.

Or are they? Mom follows Simon into a cave and finds two sets of footprints. Is there another child? Do ghosts leave footprints?

On such questions a thousand horror movies have speculated, and "The Orphanage" is not going to knock you over with original material. The house is full of things that go bump in the night, disembodied whispers and giggles, things that smash and break for no earthly reason. There are passages obviously borrowed from "Poltergeist," from David Lynch, and a compressed flashback that's more than a nod to M. Night Shyamalan.

What's different about "The Orphanage" is the way it ceases to be a horror movie, scare tactics aside. Simon goes missing, and "The Orphanage" becomes a story of how Rueda's determination to use any means - natural or supernatural - to solve the riddle of her child's disappearance.

Director Juan Antonio Bayona mixes police procedural, seance, logic and intuition so interchangeably that eventually all that's left is Rueda's obstinate belief that a mother knows (the movie's motto is that seeing is not believing - it's the other way around).

She knows even that which she does not wish to know, which accounts for the strange direction the movie takes during its closing moments. It's a surprise ending, in the sense that horror melts away and we're left looking at a fate worse than ghosts. *

Produced by Mar Targarona, Joaquin Padro, Alvaro Augustin, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, written by Sergio Sanchez, music by Fernando Velasquez, distributed by Picturehouse Entertainment.

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