Review of The Orphanage

orphanage Thomas 2

J.A. Bayona (Director) and Guillermo Del Toro (Executive Producer) have joined forces and the results are phenomenal. The product of this union is The Orphanage – an exceptional haunted house film.

Free of cheap scares and senseless gore – The Orphanage relies on setting, story, and artful camera work. I love it when I can praise a modern film for utilizing the time-tested techniques of classic scare films. I will continue to distinguish the traditional “goodness” from the modern “blah” again and again until the creators of lesser films get the message. This film is in good company with other modern and relatively modern greats such as The Others (Alejandro Amenábar)  and The House at the End of Time (Alejandro Hidalgo). Spanish filmmakers seem to have exactly what it takes when it comes to creating haunted house films.

Back to The Orphanage.  Let’s begin with the environment. Set in a seashore atmosphere, with thrashing waves, seaside caves and a lighthouse just few waves away, The Orphanage effectively uses this striking setting to bring forth haunts. The ghosts of children lurk in the cave, the battering waves nearly captures a mother who desperately searches for her missing child, and the lighthouse, is it a beacon of hope?   The multi-level home, a former residence for orphaned children, has hidden rooms and buried secrets. Its long dark hallways seem to be calling out for ghosts.

Here’s a brief synopsis: As a child, Laura was an orphan who lived in residence hall that is the subject of this film. She was adopted and left behind several of her orphan friends. Many years later, the orphanage has closed down and the adult Laura sets out to reopen it as a home for disabled children. She and her husband and their little boy Simon move in and before they can set out on their goal of reopening the facility, strange things happen. The strangeness begins when little Simon tells his parents about his imaginary friends.

Consider such scenarios that are common in many haunted house films: children with sensitivities toward paranormal phenomena; a house haunted by ghostly children. These can be genuinely creepy scenarios so long as the film is done right. Take for instance a little girl dressed up in zombie-like fashion that jumps out with a deafening scream – I’m sorry but this isn’t creepy (Hello Amityville Horror Remake of 2005!) Scary perhaps, but not creepy, and I prefer the creepy.

To capture the creepiness factor, the lines between reality and a child’s fantasy must be ever so subtly blurred. There must be layers of terror lurking underneath the shield of innocence, with each successive layer becoming more and more disturbing. And what’s more innocent than childhood games! The Orphanage has several scenes where a game puts a chain of creepy events into motion. There’s the game where someone faces a wall and counts while a group of children slowly advance on the counter. They freeze when the counter turns around at intervals of five. Then there’s the game where the object is to solve a riddle by following a trail of clues. Something hidden in a dresser might lead to a note on a statue, and son on. Imagine these games played inside a haunted house where ghosts decide to join in the fun. Or maybe the ghosts are the makers of such games? The point is that this film successfully builds a bridge between innocence and terror and we the viewers walk this bridge in exhilarating trepidation.

Perhaps the creepiest element of this film is the child that hides his face underneath a sack with eyeholes cut out of it. He doesn’t have to jump out in front of the camera to create a scare. His mysterious presence is frightening enough. Who is this? Is it Simon playing some kind of game or is it someone else?

All this and I haven’t delved into the plight of Laura, Simon’s mother. After Simon, she is orphanage Laurenthe next in line to be the receiver of haunts. As a former resident of the home, she is best equipped to deal with the mystery that envelops the house and ties the whole story together. Is she up to the task?

There is a whole lot more going on in this film but I will say no more. Trust me when I sat that this is a great film. It is filled with mystery and suspense. The story is well written and, did I mention that it is creepy? I guess I did. It is creepy indeed!


Review of Crimson Peak

crimson-peak houseWhen I heard that the writer and director of Pan’s Labyrinth was writing and directing a haunted house movie, I got excited. I looked forward to seeing the latest film from visionary Guillermo Del Toro. I couldn’t wait to see “his” ghosts; freed from his imagination and set loose on the big screen. To these ends, my wishes came true on Tuesday night, Oct 27.  My visual appetite was satisfied, as was any desire I had concerning flair. It was a stylish film indeed.  But alas, something was missing.

Let me being with what I liked about Crimson Peak. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the gothic manor and all its intricacies, seen and unseen. I liked the winding staircase and cage-like elevator. I like the unfinished roof and the atmospheric snow that flowed continuously into the house like background waterfalls.  I loved all the props – the candelabras, the portraits, the piano. The music is appropriately haunting.  The ghosts are great. Silky and spooky; they are like no ghosts I had ever seen on the screen.

I liked the overall tone – the Victorian/Edwardian formality in dress and speech. The Crimson-peakfilm transported me out of the theater and into a different time period without any turbulence.  It was nice to see a shout out to those glorious horror films of yore.

And the film is rich with symbolism. It’s poetic.

So much is good about the film. So it disheartens me to say that I left the theater feeling slightly underwhelmed.  Why is this? It was the slow and unpromising plot. Actually, cancel that word “unpromising.”  It was promising. The problem was that it made promises but failed to deliver upon them.

It teased out mystery where there was none. It built up false suspense and while the story didn’t leave viewers hanging, in the end it seemed to shrug apologetically for the fact that there was never a reason to hang at all.

It is difficult to provide examples without trudging into the storyline. But I don’t want to reveal too much, although the risk of spoiler contamination is very low. The young and handsome Thomas Sharpe arrives to New York from England with his sister. He is an opportunist and he tries to convince Carter Cushing to invest in technology that he has developed for mining clay. Carter turns him down. So Thomas and his Crimson Peakmysterious sister will go back England, but not until Thomas woos away Carter’s daughter Edith.  Carter does not trust Thomas. He says that there is something unlikable about him but he can’t explain what it is.  But at least Thomas is friendly and charming, unlike his sister who is cold and expressionless.  Thomas marries Edith and the three return to England to live in the spooky old mansion on top of Crimson Peak.


Here’s a hint as to how the suspense works in this film: if a character has a hunch (like Carter has with Thomas), he is probably correct. If a person appears evil, the person is evil. If there were a butler in this film, then the quip “the butler did it” would surely play out (There is no butler in this film.)

One might say, “Okay, so it’s a straightforward film. What’s wrong with that?” What’s wrong is that it starts viewers out on arcane paths, only to merge them into a plain old narrative of narrow storytelling.  If you want to tell a straightforward, what-you-see-is what- you-get story, that’s fine. But don’t lead the viewers on with secrets and hidden histories.  There are many examples of this kind of leading, but I won’t mention them, because I guess even a letdown can be a spoiler.

Imagine receiving a present. Not only is the wrapping paper beautiful, but there are bows and bells and pieces of candy attached to the box as well. Peel away all this and you find that the design of the box is appealing too.  Inside the box there are decorative tissues and fluffy coverings that feel soft against your fingertips.  Remove this covering and you find – tube socks.  Happy Birthday.   If this were a terrible movie with absolutely no depth, then my analogy would be a bit different. It would entail dazzling wrappings on a crappy, empty box. But it’s not terrible, it’s just, well, it’s tube socks.

Let’s end on a mostly positive note as I focus in on the ghosts. I’ll call this the “good, the blah, and the good again”

  • The good – The ghosts looked good. The CGI worked to the film’s benefit. The ghosts didn’t come off as cartoonish. They looked genuinely creepy.
  • The blah – We didn’t learn much about the ghosts. They were just sort of “there”, part of the background. Yes they scared the wits out of poor Edith on several occasions. But they didn’t contribute all that much too the overall workings of the story.
  • The good again – Kudos for allowing viewers the time to take in the ghosts! They didn’t flash rudely on the screen as did the ghosts of other modern ghost movies such as The Haunting of Connecticut  and the remake of Amityville Horror. Rather, they traversed slowly and creepily. They peered around walls. They peaked out of closets.  THIS is what “scary” is all about.


So that’s about it. I really, really, wanted to like this film. And I guess I did, but I just couldn’t bring myself to love it.