It's amazing how quickly the movie swallows a viewer whole, as if we're being told a brilliant ghost story by a master yarn-spinner...
When I did my year-end lists at the close of 2007, I had a few choices for the year's best flick -- a few of which went on to earn a whole bunch of Oscar nominations -- but I went with my heart and picked Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage as my favorite. Yes, 2007 offered some great films from Sidney Lumet, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen brothers -- but none of those movies really "hit" me like The Orphanage did. If I called it a mixture of gothic horror and unapologetic melodrama, please don't mistake that description for "it's boring." If you're in the mood for high-end gore and a massive body count, you know where to find that stuff. But here you'll find something a that's both different and familiar, comfortable and creepy: a wonderfully engrossing, masterfully paced, and unexpectedly emotional horror thriller called The Orphanage. (And if you simply refuse to watch subtitled movies, that's fine. Your loss.)
One of the most satisfying things about The Orphanage is the way the story unfolds: logically, subtly, and littered with interesting clues, sudden divergences and unexpected twists. Therefore, to divulge a whole lot about the plot would do the first-time viewer a grave disservice -- and so I synopsize the film like so: A married couple and their adopted son move into an old orphanage with the hopes of re-opening the facility, but their plans are interrupted by what seems to be a group of ... lost souls. The husband and the wife find themselves reacting quite differently to the phenomena, and so (of course) a few experts are called in and a few unwise explorations are made. (It's amazing how quickly the movie swallows a viewer whole, as if we're being told a brilliant ghost story by a master yarn-spinner.)
Some thoughts from when I first saw the film at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival: "Bolstered by a flawless lead performance by Belen Rueda, The Orphanage is out to chill your bones, to be sure, but there's also a great air of mystery (and a wonderfully welcome sense of poignancy) that elevates the film beyond that of a simple thriller. And while some of the themes and ideas may feel familiar to those who follow the 'south of the border' horror exports, there's more than enough originality and freshness to satisfy those fans. Producer Guillermo del Toro's fingerprints are all over The Orphanage, but first-time feature director Bayona strikes a fantastic balance between well-earned chills and strangely heart-touching emotion. (And what an ending!) The film seems awash in both bittersweet nostalgia and stylishly grim atmosphere -- plus there are several solid jolts and even some strongly effective moments of graphic nastiness."
And after enjoying the film a second time on DVD, my opinion has only grown stronger: I think The Orphanage will eventually stand alongside The Haunting, The Changeling, Poltergeist ... name your favorite "haunted house" flick and this one matches up pretty damn well. For such a simple story, it's presented with such meticulous care and obvious effort -- frankly, I'm amazed that this film comes from a first-time director. (The movie actually just recharged my horror batteries, which I really needed after watching The Ruins die and Prom Night succeed.)
The DVD from New Line is pretty solid in itself, too. Purists will be pleased to note that there is NO English-language audio track, and also that the sounds are delivered in your choice of DTS 6.1, Dolby Surround 5.1, or Digital 2.0 -- all in Spanish. (English subtitles are of course included, as are some Spanish ones.) The widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is crystal-clear, which is good because the flick looks like a million bucks. As far as the extra goodies go, it's a solid enough lot. When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage is a 17-minute (subtitled) behind-the-scenes look at the film, composed mainly of (some very excellent) interviews with Mr. Bayona, Ms. Rueda, screenwriter Sergio Sanchez, and several other cast and crew members. There's a lot of love being tossed around for the film, but the interviewees all have some rather insightful things to say about the piece. Tomas' Secret Room: The Filmmakers is an 11-minute collection of featurettes focusing on the director, the score, the art direction, the computer effects, and the opening credits sequence. It's a too-brief piece to cover all of these components in much detail, but fans should dig 'em all the same.
Horror in the Unknown: Make-Up Effects is a 9-minute conversation with the practical effects creators, and Rehearsal Studio is just a 3-minute piece between the director and his young star. Rounding out the disc are a stills gallery, four(!) theatrical trailers, a poster gallery, and some "sneak peeks" for Pan's Labyrinth, Amusement, One Missed Call, Otis, and The Sick House.
All told, an excellent Spanish horror tale brought to North America DVD in fine form. The audio / video specs are top-notch, the supplemental features are solid (if not exactly spectacular), and the main feature is an absolute keeper. It's a flick you'll want to make people watch for themselves.