At the beginning of the year, while down in North Carolina celebrating a late Christmas with my girlfriend, we decided to put aside some time to visit the Concord Mills Mall in Charlotte before she brought me to the airport. Let me tell you, this mall may not be the biggest one in the country, but it is for damn sure the biggest one I have ever personally entered. They had everything, and twice the size any of it needed to be. Of course, being a mall rat at heart, I loved it. They also happened to have a Big McLargeHuge movie theater, and there happened to be several films worth seeing. Due to time and interest, we ended up checking out EL ORFANATO (THE ORPHANAGE). I am sure most of you have heard of the film, and some may have even seen it, but since it had a limited theatrical release, most of you probably haven't. But that is not a problem, since it just came out on video on April 22nd (see, I am topical occasionally). I am here to make the case for why you should watch it.
If that poster doesn't make you want to see the movie, eff off.
First off, let me dispel the notion that it is a Guillermo Del Toro film. He executive produced it, but that is all. Don't get me wrong: his contribution to the film was important in both a big brother sense, to the principals of the crew, and in ensuring, by use of his highly respected (read: profitable) name recognition, that it was properly funded and found not only at least some theatrical release, but also found an expedient and proper home on DVD.
You see, it is a Spanish film. As in, the dialog is in Spanish, and it has English subtitles. To the point where, in what I consider to be a wonderful move, there is even no option on the disc for dubbing. As it so happens, I am one of those twatty elitist geeks who thinks people who watch foreign films with English dubbing (when they have the choice of subtitles) should pretty much be shot in the face. You lose the flavor of the film that way; I want to hear the actors' original performances, the urgency and emotion in their voices, not some other person's idea of what they should sound like. Hell, even all of the special features on this disc are Spanish with English subtitles. Del Toro himself, whom I know for a fact speaks fluent English, speaks Spanish when interviewed.
But back to the film. Del Toro's influence was especially necessary in the case of this film, since it was not only commercial and music video director Juan Antonio Bayona's first feature film, but also the first feature film for writer Sergio G. Sanchez, editor Elena Ruiz, and cinematographer Oscar Faura. That is a lot of new blood to have on one movie. Luckily, the pull it all off smashingly.
The movie opens with an idyllic summer scene, children playing a game of tag on a green lawn, complete with feathers vacillating in the breeze. It is only as the camera pans out that we see they are all wearing shabby uniforms, and then we notice that
they all have some apparent defect or disability, and that this place they are playing at is the titular orphanage, one specifically for the disabled. We are then brought inside the building, where a phone call reveals that one of the cute little critters has finally been adopted...that critter being Laura, the one orphan with no visible dysfunction. Surprise, surprise.
Belen Rueda, absolutely working that camera.
Flash forward thirty-years, and that very same Laura is occupying the very same building...except know she owns it, and inhabits it with her doctor husband Carlos, and their child Simon...a child it just so happens they have adopted. They are all three gearing up for a new batch of orphans to arrive, because Laura has decided to re-open the orphanage and run it herself. There are many levels of dysfunction in that scenario, and I will let you piece them together yourself. Just let it be known that all disabilities are not outward.
The trouble begins when Simon, who is asked daily to take a cocktail of pills, but is never told why, begins speaking of his imaginary friends, which is no big deal, normal for a small child. Except his fake friends tell him lots of interesting tidbits about himself, and start playing a game with him where they hide objects of his property, and if he finds them he is promised treasure. He takes Laura on a chase all through the house, where they do indeed find his items hidden here and there, each hiding place revealing a clue about the next place to look. Laura finds it all in good fun, and naturally assumed that Simon did the hiding himself. A fact he vehemently denies.
Proceedings take a darker turn when a little old lady named Benigna shows up at Laura's door, claiming to be a social worker, and has more information about Simon than she should have. Laura escorts her out, and finds out when she checks up on her that she is in fact not at all what she claimed to be. And when at a party celebrating the re-opening of the orphanage Laura sees Pilar, she knows something is drastically wrong. As she hunts for Simon, whom she had a fight with and has now disappeared, she is confronted by the apparition of a child, a child wearing a supremely creepy sack mask over its head. She gets locked in the bathroom by it, and by the time she is let out, Simon is gone from the face of the earth, with no trace left behind in his wake.
From here on out, the movie becomes a tragedy, as secrets behind Pilar, the apparition (a boy named Tomas), and the reason the orphanage closed in the first place are revealed. It is secondarily a suspense tale about what happened to Simon, and when and where and if he can be recovered. Lastly, and I feel most importantly, it becomes a tale about the love a mother has for her son, and what she is willing to do to find out the truth. In fact, Sanchez says that the inspiration for the story was Peter Pan; he thought, when
watching some version of that story of boys whisked away to some far off place, "How would that be for the mother? How terrible for her!"
Tomas will live in your nightmares...FOREVER!
The movie is top-notch, in my not so humble opinion, and while not visceral in gore, is most definitely a horror piece. In fact, it pays tribute, unconscious or otherwise, to many other films that have come before. Right off the bat, the mask that Tomas wears will instantly make the veteran horror fan think of the boy Jason in the original FRIDAY THE 13th. Then, later on when Laura enlists the help of a team of psychics and parapsychologists, the similarity to POLTERGEIST cannot be ignored. The part of Tangina from that film is essayed by veteran actress Geraldine Chaplin, as Aurora. She walks through the house, and "feels" the past events. She then gives a line to Laura that turns out to be the key to the movie. You'll have to watch it to find out what it is.
To give you an idea of how effective the movie is in delivering the goods, my g/f, who is not a frilly, airheaded chick, was only covering her face when she was not clutching my arm or kicking her feet against the floor in agitation. It is always gratifying to see such a reaction to someone watching a good movie, but doubly for me. Since I'm such a film geek, it is a little validation from her that I am not the only one who is affected by films. A little validation for one of my life's biggest passions.
But I digress.
On the special features front, there are a series of short documentaries, and one longer one.
When Laura Grew Up: Constructing the Orphanage: This is the longer documentary, clocking in at around 17-minutes. It is a general overview of the proceedings, complete with interviews with all of the principals, and lots of nice behind the scenes footage. It also gives a neat tidbit about actor Roger Princep, who plays Simon. Apparently the rugrat would nail his lines during rehearsal, and then repeat them in a mechanized, unnatural way when they went to do a take. So they had to employ a variety of different methods to get proper reactions from him, including having the actors he was working with wear funny masks just off-camera.
Tomas' Secret Room: The filmmakers: This link takes you to a subsection of two-minute features, each detailing a different aspect of the production. From the newness of the principals (even star Belen Rueda, as Laura, is much more well known as a television star in Spain than a film actress) to the scoring (you can see literal tears in the eyes of Bayona when he hears it for the first time) to the SFX (there are about 200 visual FX shots in the film, most, other than the obvious bit of gore, are stuff you would never notice...the essence of CGI, in my other not so humble opinion). My favorite bit, though, is on the art direction. When we watched the film in the theater, I became convinced
that they shot it in the same house as IN A GLASS CAGE, another Spanish film, one a whole lot disgustinger than EL ORFANATO. I was completely wrong, however. Apparently the house was modeled on a computer, and the shots for the film were blocked while the set was being built: yup, every interior you see in the film was one huge set. I defy you to watch this film and not think it was shot in an actual house.
Juan Antonio Bayona, accepts a richly-deserved award.
Horror in the Unknown: Make-Up Effects: This is a nine-minute piece detailing...well, I guess you can guess what. The only real make-up effects in this film are a leg wound, a disfigured face, and the results of a nasty car accident (the squishiest bit of the film). In other words, this section may not hold your attention all that much. Still, nice to see they took things so seriously on set.
Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read: The title of this one is kind of misleading. Yes, there is table read footage, and some interviews with the actors, but damned if I could see any audition footage. And the whole thing is only about four-minutes long, which would be the world's shortest table read if the title was to be believed, no?
Still Gallery: Never my favorite part of a special features package, this one is pretty neat. It is broken up into chunks, so you can either choose from many different types of still galleries individually, or watch them all as a slideshow, complete with music. Very nice.
Marketing Campaign: This is the disc's repository for trailers, TV spots, and poster designs. The posters designs are of specific note here: some of them are truly excellent.
Other than some previews (not surprisingly, one of them is for PAN'S LABYRINTH) that is basically it.
So, there you go. The movie is out on DVD, is fabulous, and is unapologetically Spanish. Whip out your reading glasses, make some popcorn, dim the lights, and get creeped out.
1. I changed my mind. My favorite feature on the disc is the one where they detail doing the opening credits. The opening credits show a bunch of little hands tearing wallpaper from the screen, revealing the different names of the people who worked on and starred in the film. It was an inspired last-minute addition to the film and I greatly appreciated seeing some footage on it.
2. For those of you who don't know, this will be my last column here at Matchflick. If you made it this far, you are either a skimmer or actually read this thing. If you are a reader, one whom I don't actually know, please feel free to drop me a line. You can send it to me here, or link to my Myspace page from my profile here. Thanks, and good luck to all.
EDIT: It was brought to my attention that the Concord Mills Mall is actually in Concord, not Charlotte. So, there you have it.
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