America no longer knows how to make horror movies--which explains why virtually every horror film Hollywood has extruded in the last five years has been a remake. A large percentage of those remakes haven’t even been remakes of American movies. Take, for example, the recent release One Missed Call. It’s an English-language retooling of a 2003 Japanese flick (just like The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water before it). What’s more, Warner Brothers didn’t even bother hiring an American to shoot it; the company went out and plucked an obscure French director named Eric Valette (Maléfique) to helm it. Seen ads for The Eye, the upcoming supernatural thriller starring Jessica Alba? It was originally a Thai film. Now we have an American version directed by--guess who?--a couple of French guys. All of which begs the question: If you like horror, why are you bothering to watch American films in the first place?
If you’re as dedicated a fan of horror cinema as you claim to be on your MySpace profile, just cut out the middle man and start watching foreign fright films before the crummy American remakes show up. It might mean having to read a few subtitles, but the French (Haute Tension, 13 Tzameti), the Koreans (The Host, A Tale of Two Sisters), the Spanish (Rec, Anguish), hell, even the Dutch (Dead End) are making scarier cinema than we are right now. (All of those films I just mentioned have American remakes in the pipeline, by the way.)
So your assignment this week is to go straight to the movie theater and look up a little Spanish chiller named El Orfanato (The Orphanage). If the prospect of all those foreign names on the poster fills you with apprehension, simply rest assured in the fact that it’s produced by Guillermo del Toro. He’s from Mexico, but his work on Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Blade II, The Devil’s Backbone, Mimic and Cronos ought to be enough to assure you of the film’s pulse-pounding pedigree.
Written and co-directed by virtual unknowns Sergio G. Sánchez and Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage is a chilly, atmosphere-laden ghost story set on the rocky rural coast of España. Belén Rueda, the fortysomething sexpot from The Sea Inside, is our main character, Laura. Our setting is a sprawling old seaside mansion just ripe for haunted housing. Together with her husband and young son, Laura returns to this long-unoccupied place in hopes of reopening it. Back in the day, the place was an orphanage, and Laura was lucky to be adopted from here decades ago. Now, she hopes to turn it into a boarding school for a handful of special needs children.
Almost immediately, we get the feeling things aren’t right around this crumbling institution. For starters, there’s Laura’s prepubescent son Simón (Roger Príncep). He doesn’t seem like a terribly well-adjusted kid to begin with, spending most of his time talking to his invisible friend and making up weird games. Simón’s parents hope this is just a phase he’s going through; but soon after moving into the old orphanage, he acquires a whole herd of invisible friends with whom he communes. This doesn’t sit well with Laura, who soon recognizes an eerie connection between Simón’s unseen playmates and a group of fellow orphans Laura knew as a child. In time, our heroine starts to realize her collection of sunny childhood memories isn’t quite as bright as she once remembered.
The Orphanage is smart enough to keep its scares low-key and slow-building. We’re never really sure, for example, if these ghosts are “real” or just part of Laura’s overprotective parental paranoia. As the story builds, Laura grows increasingly frantic, until an unexpected tragedy causes just about everyone to question her sanity. The Orphanage spends most of its time dealing in the realm of the psychological, but there are enough visceral moments to keep your blood pumping throughout. A recurring image of a creepy kid with a burlap sack over his head is a sight sure to fuel a nightmare or two. The film does slow down a bit in the middle, exploring a wide and sometimes muddy range of story paths before driving home with the goods at high speed. Even so, there’s at least one major jump-out-of-your-seat moment midway through. Seeing audience reactions to that one is worth the price of admission alone.
If you require frequent, Hostel-style blood and guts to keep yourself going, The Orphanage isn’t for you and your short attention span. (Dig up the Russian film Nails or the Italian film Last House in the Woods for that stuff.) This one’s much more in line with atmospheric Japanese chillers, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others and with del Toro’s back catalogue (The Devil’s Backbone is a major influence here). Watching The Orphanage is akin to walking slowly down the basement stairs in your parents’ old house, waiting in uncomfortable anticipation for something to leap out of the shadows and scare the lemonade out of your short pants.