The Orphanage (Picturehouse, R)

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Produced by Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage exudes a rare charm and playfulness, particularly in a genre where mean-spirited tricks and laughs prevail.

Is it too much to expect one good horror film per year? I lean toward ‘yes’ as the genre seems littered with films that mistakenly think torture makes for good terror. Last year’s The Descent was enough of a great film to hold me over for 2007, but thankfully, Picturehouse squeezed the Spanish gothic tale The Orphanage just before the end of the year (in NYC, at least), being the year’s sole gem in the unfortunately tired genre (I’m discounting both Bug and Joshua, which I liked quite a bit).

Produced by Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage exudes a rare charm and playfulness, particularly in a genre where mean-spirited tricks and laughs prevail. The story follows a hot mom Laura (Belén Rueda) who’s moved into the former orphanage she inhabited as a girl, along with her husband (Fernando Cayo) and adopted, HIV-positive young son Simón (Roger Príncep). As is typical of horror film youth, Simón is a bit odd; he replaces his loneliness with imaginary friends, which would seem a normal act except for the fact that this is a horror film, and it’s entirely possible that as the new "friends" Simón has made at his new home might be ghosts haunting the old orphanage. When the boy vanishes, Laura is sent into frantic turmoil, convinced the house has something to do with his disappearance. Laura and her husband enlist a medium (the wonderful Geraldine Chaplin) to inspect the house, proving that Laura may not be simply stricken with grief.

What’s refreshing about The Orphanage is how it takes its dark subject matter and turns it into something lively and, above all, a lot of fun. Geraldine Chaplin’s scenes in the film, in which she attempts to contact the "other side," are stunningly chilling in their way of provoking innocuous smiles. The Orphanage relies on its playfulness to keep dread from overtaking it. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it comes to a fascinating and unexpected conclusion, one wrapped in a strange, effective ambiguity. Though the film occasionally relies too heavily on silly jolts, The Orphanage is still a wholly enjoyable experience and probably the best example of having fun with the genre in recent memory. | Joe Bowman

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