Thursday, May 22, 2008

I See Dead People (With Subtitles)

(Avast, mateys, minor spoilers ahead

I think that as I do reviews, I may have to sell the sponsorship rights to my dear Mom. This past weekend, with my wife and kids off on an adventure to Utah, my parents invited me out to dinner and a movie. Never one to turn down free food (or almost anything), I graciously accepted. The movie was a rental that I hadn't heard of. "The Orphanage". A horror film. Dead orphans stalking the living? How could we go wrong!

There are things that are scary, and there are things that are terrifying. Scary is someone in a mask wielding a meat cleaver. Terror, however, true mortifying, oppressive horror, goes deeper. It preys on our deepest fears. El Orfanato takes one of the most overlooked yet painful and terrifying scenarios imaginable. The unexplained loss of a child. As a parent, I can personally attest that the scariest eight minutes of my life, was when guests staying with us unloaded their van with our front door open for a good 10 minutes. In the ensuing chaos, no one had noticed that our little 1 and a half year old had wandered outside. After a time, my wife and I both came to the realization that neither of us had seen our youngest in some time. We both assumed the other had put her down for a nap. Ghastly scenarios swirled around my head. As I tore through the rooms in our house and back yard, I wondered if I might fight her having fallen from a high ledge, or face down in our 10 dollar kiddie pool. I will never forget running up our street, crying out frantically her name while barefoot, only to look back over my shoulder to see my wife sobbing with our little girl in her arms. She was playing in the rocks of our neighbor's yard. I have never cried like I did when we found her.

Now that you have no doubt called Child Protective Services, I had better finish this quickly before they come knocking at our door. The Orphanage, Spain's Oscar nominated foreign language film, takes us through this same scenario with a supernatural twist. The central characters in this haunting, frightening, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting (!?!) film are Laura and her son Simon. In the early goings of the film, we learn that Laura, an orphan herself, has purchased with her husband the titular orphanage where she grew up, with the intention of creating a special type of home for children where she, her husband, and adopted son Simon will also live. During the closing, however, apparently no one disclosed the dark history of the property, and of course, the obviously gifted and imaginative Simon begins to see and play with special friends. They teach him how to play a special game, where the winner is granted any wish they desire.

To give away much past this would be a disservice to this finely crafted story, but needless to say, Simon disappears mysteriously and without a trace. The rest of the story is Laura's quest to find the truth about her son's disappearance, while simultaneously unearthing her homes dark and guarded secrets. This trite description is as underwhelming as The Orphanage is powerful.

The plausability of the movie rests squarely upon the shoulders of Laura, played with ease by Belen Rueda. A bad note in her performance would bring this melancholy symphony to a grinding halt, yet she deftly undulates between frantic desperation and cautious hope. Her range is amazing as she channels the viewers' worst fears and dread. As anyone will agree by the end of the movie, she is called upon for such a broad range of emotion from beginning to climax, that you half expect her to be panting and breathless by the last frame. The story is an amalgamation of two of my very favorite tales, an oft overlooked novel by Orson Scott Card called Lost Boys, and the standard by which the modern suspense/horror movie is judged, The Sixth Sense. Viewers will no doubt draw comparisons between this and The Sixth Sense, but rest assured, there is more than enough original content here for the material to feel very fresh. Indeed, this is the first movie I have seen since Haley Joel Osmont saw dead people that had such an "Ah ha!" moment, that I almost immediately put it back in for a second viewing. I would not be surprised if others after coming to the conclusion immediately retraced the movie's winding course once again to see if, as M. Night Shamalan did so long ago, the movie followed it's own rules.

The Orphanage is rated R, but after having viewed it (indeed, a very naughty thing) I cannot fathom it's rating. Aside from it's overall opressive and grim atmosphere (and tense moments) viewers will find themselves witness to a very shocking car crash (with brief graphic intensity) but little else along the lines of viseral gore, and one F bomb. Of course, if you have any question, do not see it, and obviously, this is NOT one for the kids.

I give The Orphanage four out of four...orphans? Adoption papers? I dunno, I can't come up with anything good, except for the admonition that you should see this movie.

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