A well-made ghost story is a hard movie to come by. Sure, there are more of them than you can shake a broomstick at, but the ones that are genuinely enthralling, frightening, atmospheric are a rare breed of supernature. Haunted house stories are even harder to ply, but when they’re done well, they can be utterly chilling. The Abandoned was one such movie.
El Orfanato is another, and even stronger. Not only is it a superbly told drama; it’s a haunted house and ghost story par excellence. It does have some holes, but then don’t all haunted houses have cracks in the ceiling?
Presented by Guillermo del Toro, who it seems these days has become the Tarantino of Spain (his official title is executive producer), the movie does exude the same strong fluid visual style and iconographic imagery, but credit must be paid to the director for Juan Antonio Bayona, for this is his debut feature, and it’s superbly handled. As talented as del Toro is, I think El Orfanato is a better movie than the phantasmogorical Pan’s Labyrinth, a film I found to be uneven and somewhat overrated by critics and audiences.
El Orfanato might not be the most original story (apparently it is very similar to a low-rent French movie called Saint Ange made a few years ago), but it feels fresh and invigorating. This is partly due to the terrific performances from the leads, especially Belén Rueda as Laura (even if she doesn’t quite look as young as the age she is playing) and Roger Príncep as young Simón. Also of note in small, but crucial roles are Geraldine Chaplin as Aurora, a supernatural medium, and Montserrat Carulla as creepy Benigna.
Laura and her doctor husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have moved back into her childhood home, which was an orphanage for disabled children. Their son, seven-year-old Simón, is lonely and has seemingly conjured several invisible friends to keep him entertained. The parents wish to care for a small number of handicapped children within the large home in an effort to restore the household to its former facility, but strange and disturbing events begin to occur and Laura becomes obsessed with finding the truth.
El Orfanato is intelligent and controlled, yet always manages to tease and taunt and go “Boo!” at just the right moments. The production values are top-notch; everything from the location shooting to the art direction to the editing to the sound design and score. The movie has the slick stamp of a Hollywood melodrama, but glides and stings like a great Euro horror.
One of the key elements which lifts El Orfanato above other ghost stories is how emotionally involving the movie is. I was significantly moved during the film’s final scenes, and found it refreshingly to be manipulated in such a way by a movie of this kind. Not only is the movie haunting, but it is genuinely sad. Of course, I’ll eat my boots if Hollywood doesn’t come up with a remake (betcha they’re closing the deal as I write this), or worse still, they lure the original director to America to re-direct another version in English (the movie has Hollywood appeal written all over it, the question is to what extent will they change the screenplay, especially the ending …?)
I find it perturbing when I think of Hollywood getting its grubby mitts all over this fabulous film, but it’s inevitable in this day and age when a foreign movie of above-average calibre isn’t re-packaged for the lowest-common dominator in America. But enough griping, just make sure you go see El Orfanato on the big screen when it opens theatrically, you won’t be disappointed.
Some modern horror films amble around for a couple hours and never get anywhere. Most films that promise suspense don’t deliver. “The Strangers” makes none of those promises yet it has plenty of suspense and even a moment or two of horror. The film is categorized as a thriller and it delivers as promised. The film has a slow fuse but, although it may not burn fast, it never slows down. The film is set up to let you know something is not right from the beginning. It’s a plot device that works well in this case. Tension is tension whether internal or external and the story opens with us knowing there is an obvious problem between Kristen and James (played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman). That tension cleverly preps us for pressure that won’t let up. Tyler isn’t known for her acting chops. This was director Bryan Bertino’s leap of faith. The script leans heavily on her ability to take us with her as her emotion intensifies. One of the reasons I’m giving “The Strangers” four stars is because of Tyler’s performance. This is her vehicle. Had she not been totally invested in her role the film would have failed. I recently saw the French film, “Them.” My fear “Strangers” being an Americanization of it was unfounded. There are many similarities but the films have strong differences. If you enjoy “The Strangers,” I highly recommend “Them” if you can get past the subtitles. “The Stranger” meets the definition of a thriller with uncommon mystery, suspense and even a few times when you’ll jump out of your crawling skin. Wanna get scared? Invite “The Stranger” onto your playlist. You’ll be glad you did.