12 December, 2008

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2007)

Children in the shadows

James Drew reviews, a little after the event, one of this year's European Film Awards' nominees. He's not saying that Gomorra didn't deserve to win (as he hasn't actually seen it yet, that wouldn't really be fair, but keep it here for his review soon), but is a little disappointed that this classic ghost story didn't lift a gong in any of its nominated categories...

A pleasure to know that the genuinely creepy, M.R. James-esque ghost story is not, for want of a better word, dead. It will come as no surprise to those who follow the genre and those who have followed the only really notable horror films of recent years, such as Fragile (2005), [Rec] (2007), both by Spanish genius Jaume Balagueró, that El Orfanato’s creator, young music-video maker turned film director Juan Antonio Bayona, is also a Spaniard, as is writer Sergio G. Sánchez. In an age of seemingly never-ending remakes and ‘torture porn’ from the US, it would appear that Spain is where it’s at for scares. Hoorah, say I…

From the outset, you know that the film’s setting promises shivers. Let’s face it, an old, previously abandoned orphanage (like a deserted hospital) is a place guaranteed to give you the creeps, whether you believe in ‘the other side’ or not. Even if it’s not haunted, it’s haunting.

Anyway, Laura (Belén Rueda) brings her family (husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) back to her childhood home - an orphanage, which she intends to reopen for handicapped children. But the house holds secrets and, when Simón starts talking and playing with his invisible new friends, darkness is fast approaching…

Those who love the genre are forever being asked as to why they like being scared by those who don’t - I’ve already presented my ‘It’s like a rollercoaster’ standby argument, so, to paraphrase, the best scary movies make you feel alive. No exception here - character and story credibility (always a problem with horror) are very well established, thanks to a straight-faced script, the universal empathy that is felt for a child (and mother) in peril, and the more traditional (but expertly executed) notions of something ‘orrible in the basement, combined with the fact that kids can be scary, period.

What’s more, the acting is first rate and, in another move away from contrived US excess, the denoument is both chilling and, paradoxically, heartwarming.

Definitely one for a cold night in front of the fire around Christmas and, if you should choose to watch it with your children, just make sure you know which ones, eh? Heh, heh, heh…

Awards: Click here for details.

105 mins. In Spanish.

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