"Believe and you will see."
Given the popularity of the ghost-story genre, it's surprising that the cinema has given us so few really good ones. In the past couple of decades it seems as though movies have abandoned things like tension and suspense in favor of blood and gore. But there was a time, and, fortunately, there still is a time, for old-fashioned frights. Among the ghost stories I have found most entertaining through the years are "The Uninvited" (1944), "The Haunting" (1963), "The Legend of Hell House" (1973), "Poltergeist" (1982), "The Others" (2001), and "The Ring" (2002). I suppose you could also throw in a couple of nontraditional ghost stories like "Alien" (1979), which may seem outwardly like science fiction but at its core is really a good, old haunted-house story, and "The Sixth Sense" (1999).
I mention all this to point out that good chillers are hard to come by. What we usually get are "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween" clones, things like the recent "One Missed Call," "Rest Stop," or "Feast of Flesh." That's why I find a film like 2007's "The Orphanage" ("El Orfanato") so welcome. It's a Spanish production, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, whose work has mainly been in Spanish television and music videos, but Guillermo del Toro co-produced it, he of "Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy," and "The Devil's Backbone" fame. You can see del Toro's hand in many of the scenes, and if you like his touch, you'll like Bayona's work and "The Orphanage," too. It's an extraordinarily impressive, low-key shocker in extraordinarily impressive high-def picture and sound.
Like all good ghost stories, this one's got a creepy old house at its center. It's a former orphanage on a rocky coast of Spain, a huge, rambling place where the main character, Laura Sanchez (Belen Rueda), spent a part of her childhood. Now thirty-seven years old, Laura persuades her doctor husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), to buy the long-abandoned building of her youth and turn it into a home for special children. Their own son, the adopted boy Simon (Roger Princep), is a child of special needs: He's got HIV and must take medications each day to survive.
All goes well for the first few days the family is there, and then things turn peculiar. Simon insists he sees and plays with invisible "friends," presumably imaginary. An old lady, Benigna Escobedo (Montserrat Carulla), shows up claiming to be a social worker that no one has heard of, and later Laura finds her prowling about the house in the dead of night. Shortly thereafter, Laura finds that someone, or some thing, appears to be trying to communicate with her and Simon, as Simon leads them on a treasure hunt around the grounds of the old place. A mysterious little boy with a gunnysack mask shows up, and he seems none too friendly. Laura finds a curious doorknob lying about in the house, but she cannot fathom what it's for, as there is no door without a knob.
Then one of Simon's invisible friends, Tomas, tells him that his parents adopted him, a fact he relates to Laura and Carlos. And shortly thereafter Simon goes missing, almost driving Laura mad with grief. Thus, the movie is more than a spine tingler; it's an adept psychological study of a mother's loss.
So that's the story's setup. The movie goes on to explore Laura's growing obsession with the supernatural, her growing belief that the house contains spirits of the children who used to attend the orphanage with her, and her determination that her own child is still alive and is somehow with these spirits somewhere nearby. She even calls upon a medium, Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin), to conduct a psychic investigation of the house, something Laura's husband as well as a police psychologist, Pilar (Mabel Rivera), thoroughly disapprove of.
Meanwhile, the tension grows by the minute. This is a quiet film for the most part, but it's an imaginative one, well filmed, with lots of odd angles, plenty of dark corners and corridors, and a musical score that elicits shudders from the outset. Still, it's those quiet moments that are most telling because it's from these most serene intervals that the movie's most frightful elements arise.
Not only is the story spooky, with the pressure mounting throughout, there are several good shocks along the way that will knock you out of your seat. Mostly, though, the film just makes your hair stand on end.
I've seen "The Orphanage" three times now, and even though I liked it the first two times, I enjoyed it all the more the third time around (thanks in no small part to the excellence of its high-def picture and sound). Yet, it's still strange that I have enjoyed it as much as I have on subsequent viewing, given that this latest time I knew everything that was going to happen. Perhaps it's because I saw things this time I had missed the first times, like the significance of the Peter Pan story and the nearby lighthouse. Perhaps it's because I began to see more clearly the relationships among all the story's characters and events. I even liked the ending more each time, an ending about which I had some initial reservations but now see opens up to several possible new interpretations. And I grew to appreciate the acting of Ms. Rueda as the distraught mother. I suspect I was so caught up in the plot and events the first time I saw it, I overlooked how much this fine actress's portrayal helped to sell the horror.
While "The Orphanage" moves along at a leisurely pace, it builds to a terrifying climax. Viewers expecting something quicker and more gruesome may not like it, and viewers who don't speak Spanish may resist it for its English subtitles. Frankly, I didn't notice the movie even had subtitles, so engrossed was I in the goings on.
New Line transferred the 2.35:1 ratio picture to Blu-ray disc at 1080 resolution using an VC-1 codec with splendid results. The video is about as clear and well delineated as that of any high-definition disc I've watched. Colors are bright and vivid when necessary, although often they have an intentionally cold, subdued, iron-gray pastel cast to them. While there is a slightly shiny appearance to the image, it usually helps to distinguish and clarify objects. Black levels are deep, yet even in darker scenes the detailing is above par. Shots of the old house, set on a cliff between a rocky coastline and a woods, are sometimes stunningly beautiful, the greens of the foliage, the blues of the ocean, and the whites of the snow creating a panorama of gorgeous portraits. I saw zero artifacts and just the merest hint of normal film grain in an otherwise immaculate print. Needless to say, object delineation is unusually sharp, except in shots where the director intended a degree of softness.
The Blu-ray edition provides a single Spanish soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. If you haven't heard a good Master Audio 7.1 track, even in 5.1 as I listened to it, then you've missed something. However, if you've heard "Pan's Labyrinth" in DTS MA, then you'll get the idea. The audio for "The Orphanage" is very atmospheric, thanks to the widely dispersed channel information and the abundance of eerie surround sounds, like creaking doors, groaning boards, dripping water, rain, thunder, voices, and footsteps, which are now more pinpoint accurate in their directionality than ever. More important, though, is the clarity of the midrange. There were times during this film when I thought some of the movie's noises were real and in the room with me, and I actually put the film into pause to check them out. Then, too, you'll find exceptionally wide dynamics, a taut bass, and a quick transient response. This is not a particularly "blockbuster" type soundtrack, just an effective one.
The extras are the same as on New Line's SD version of the movie, and they are quite welcome, consisting primarily of four useful featurettes on the making of the film. The first is "When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage," seventeen minutes and especially enlightening insofar as these things go. The second is "Tomas' Secret Room," ten minutes specifically on sets, special effects, art direction, and the like. The third is "Horror in the Unknown: Makeup Effects," nine minutes, self-explanatory. And the fourth is "Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read," about three-and-a-half minutes. All are in standard definition.
The extras conclude with an extensive set of still galleries covering the cast, make-up effects, design, black-and-white photography, production, and conceptual art. Then, there are twenty-four scene selections (but no chapter insert); a "Marketing Campaign" that includes two Spanish and two U.S. theatrical trailers and teasers and posters; Spanish as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles.
Viewers who don't appreciate a good ghost story and would rather watch a mad slasher use a stainless-steel machete to tear his way through a dozen hapless teenagers will probably find "The Orphanage" disappointing, even boring. For the rest of us, the movie will be a quiet and disquieting thriller, made all the more fascinating for the beauty of its high-definition picture and sound.