Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review for The Orphanage

What's a bad horror movie without a few good laughs? "Hey, Lep! F*** you, lucky charms!" Dumbest horror movie quotes of all time? Here's a few that viewers might recall:

1. "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum." -- They Live (1980)

2. "Soon all of you will be like me... and then who will lock you up in a cellar?" -- The Evil Dead (1981)

3. "Not so fast, we're going to play a little game. It's called: Guess-who-just-called-the-cops-and- reported-your-sorry-mother****ing-ass!" -- Scream (1996)

4. "If Clear was right, that means Nora and Tim are going to be killed by pigeons!" -- Final Destination 2 (2003)

What do these gems of cinematic stupor have to do with this Spanish horror film by newbie director Juan Antonio Bayona? Nada. Gracias a Dios. Working alongside producer Guillermo del Torro (director of the 2007 fantasy thriller, Pan's Labyrinth), Bayona triumphs with this simple, but bizarre tale of a mother's desperate search for her lost child. Laura (Belen Rueda) is the adopted mother of Símon (Roger Princip), a seven-year-old boy diagnosed with HIV. With her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), Laura begins renovations on her child-hood home, a run-down orphanage in the north of Spain where the tranquil sea-side environment is ideal for a facility specializing in the care of disabled children. Odd sounds and doors opening on their own hardly seem strange in a house as old as the caves that shelter their own dark secrets. Following a visit from a dubious social worker, Laura is concerned with Símon's behavior as he becomes obsessed with the children "who can't grow up." Dismissing the invisible tenants as a figment of the imagination, Laura is more disturbed when Símon begins communicating with "Tomás," a young boy whom he says inhabits "a special place" within the orphanage. When Símon vanishes without a trace, Laura is compelled to follow the clues left behind by the spirits of Tomás and the orphan children and uncover a secret from the darkest corner of the past, where there lingers a sinister and terrifying truth.

In the 1960s, censors and the lack of technology fueled what would later be known as the last decade for the subtle age of horror with films such as Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, and Eyes Without a Face taking the big screen by storm. The experimental phase of the slasher-film began with the low-budget "splatter film" that gave Director/Pornographer Herschell Gordon Lewis the opportunity to derail audiences with an invitation to Blood Feast in 1963. Then, with the 1970s, came Hollywood's first stab at guts and gore with the advent of the uncut, gruesome, and fast-paced slasher-films that made Leatherface and Michael Meyers cultural icons. By the 1980s, the genre took to the mainstream with films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play, The Hitcher, My Bloody Valentine, and Friday the 13th. The deluge was so great that by the 1990s, murder-mayhem left audiences so desensitized that a cleaver here and a loose limb there were likely to earn a few screams and a flick of the eye from hardened viewers. The remedy seemed simple. More blood. More guts. More young women like Alison Lohman with a nosebleed like a hydro-cleaner making lack of circulation to the brain a likely explanation for a slipshod performance in the 2009 thriller, Drag Me to Hell.

Of all the elements of the horror genre, there are the Magnificent Seven, the crème de la crème, the ones that are most often seen and overused. The mark of any good film is one that utilizes all applicable elements in a fashion that is complementary, without a single element being overpowering. The Orphanage is an excellent example of a skillfully constructed plot that builds off the cliché element of the haunted house (1) to engineer a unique and daunting production. Roger Princip delivers an effective performance as Símon, bringing to the forefront the juvenile element (2), which is often manifested in the way of children and their freaky, prophetic drawings. The adolescent conscious has been used to an advantage in other films such as The Others (2001), The Ring (2002), and Hide and Seek (2005). (Moving on to the greatest lines in horror history) "They're hee-ere (Poltergeist, 1982)."

The puerile fascination for the things that go bump in the night is a fitting introduction for the supernatural or unseen element (3). The Orphanage utilizes the power of suggestion with finesse. Suggestion fuels anticipation, the root of fear. An audience enraptured by suspense is always more afraid of what's behind the curtain, rather than what they already know to exist. Footfalls in the dark, a voice in the silence, a light beneath a closed door. Anticipation. "One, two, Freddy's coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door . . ."

After letting in the psychic, that is. "Would you like a cup of tea?" You have dark spirits attached to you. "Cream or sugar?" You must leave this house immediately. "One lump or two?" One. "Nooooooooo!" Viewers may recall the awkward and invasive performance of Mark Friedrichs as the uptight psychic in the 2009 mokumentary, Paranormal Activity. The role of the psychic, the fourth element of the horror genre, is often doomed to divergent supporting roles or uplifted in phenomenal leadings roles for stars like Sissy Spacek (Carrie, 1976), Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, 1983), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, 1999), Cate Blanchett (The Gift, 2000), and Anthony Hopkins (Hearts in Atlantis, 2001). For Geraldine Chaplin, the supporting role of Aurora (the dying psychic who assists Laura in the search for Símon) gives viewers a rare peek at a performance that not only compliments, but enhances the film, combining the juvenile, supernatural, and psychic elements in a tantamount scene that employs psychological fear as a potent scare tactic.

With the leave of the psychic comes the exposure of the tortured soul(s) (5) and the final scene in which the hero/heroine (6) must confront the opposing force with a teeny bit of gore involved (7). Although it plays a decidedly minor role in The Orphanage, the element of gore is an ingredient which seasons well when used in moderation, but becomes dull, repetitious, and over-powering when used to the excess (What?? You're not gunning for Saw XVI???). As the gerent of gore, the tortured soul, Tomás, falls short. But this is not about religious zealots in the corn field or platinum blond aliens and the barbecue grill. Ring, ring. "(Whisper) Seven days." What if our greatest fears were not from the power of evil? What if the power of love was such that the means by which one was willing to defend it were limitless and forged in the darkest recess of our conscience? Such is the course of our heroine, Laura, the bereaved mother whose faith in her son Símon's survival is the anchor for the film's plot. The horror genre has no restraint on cruelty towards sweaty, weepy heroines in a two piece (ala Paris Hilton, House of Wax). Contrarily, Belen Rueda, as Laura, is the picture image of the devoted mother and perseverant heroine. Rueda's vigor emanates on screen in a performance that engages a morbid setting as well as any of the film's small cast and leaves no room for prolonged scenes that prompt viewers to twiddle their thumbs until the next hair-raising moment.

Irrefutably, The Orphanage is a commendable tribute to the horror genre as a prime example of the versatility of fear. A promising start for director Juan Antonio Bayona, this unnerving, but tender film will have viewers cheering for a terrifying journey into the unknown that just might turn out to be more familiar than it seems.

The Orphanage

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