Watching ’The Orphanage’ is the cinematic equivalent of taking a cool shower at the end of a sticky August afternoon. Ever since ‘Saw’ made a squishy splash at the box office in 2004, Hollywood has been obsessed with the notion that mood and atmosphere aren’t as scary as soaking a movie screen in gore. After sitting through a veritable parade of flayed flesh and torn tendons over the last four years, watching a more traditional horror film like ‘The Orphanage’ was a refreshing experience to say the least. Thankfully, I wasn’t just enchanted by a case of genre nostalgia -- instead, it was director Juan Antonio Bayona’s bleak story, disturbing imagery, and chilling character development that ultimately won me over.
As an orphan, Laura (Belen Rueda) grew up wanting to shelter other abandoned children from the harsh realities of the world. Determined to open a home for disabled children, Laura and her husband (Fernando Cayo) purchase her childhood orphanage and move in to begin renovations. Everything proceeds as planned until their son, Simon (Roger Princep), starts to describe his encounters with a group of new imaginary friends. After initially shrugging off the young boy’s stories as fantasy, his parents become increasingly uncomfortable as the tales get more vivid. But when Simon suddenly disappears, Laura realizes his imaginary friends may have been all too real. Holding onto hope long after everyone else thinks her son is dead, Laura ultimately endures a desperate search that challenges her maternal determination and her will to live.
First things first, ‘The Orphanage’ is not a balls-to-the-wall, scream-inducing genre triumph. It’s a quiet and contemplative Spanish-language thriller that relies on setting the stage for a scare, rather than dwelling on the scare itself. In fact, hardcore fans of ‘Hostel’ and other gore-porn fiascos will probably be bored to tears with Bayona’s focus on dialogue, character, and plot. The director understands that real horror films establish relatable characters that are pushed to believable extremes by a series of unnatural circumstances. In that regard, ‘The Orphanage’ is a masterwork that prioritizes its tone over its immediate impact. The film oozes atmosphere from beginning to end -- the drab palette, the surreal visualizations of Simon’s imaginary friends, and the film’s fantastic cinematography all work together to generate a creepy vibe I couldn’t shake off even after the credits rolled.
Don’t misunderstand, I certainly wouldn’t call ‘The Orphanage’ terrifying. Aside from a few cliché bursts of movement and noise, Bayona doesn’t seem interested in triggering a stampede from the theater. Instead, he plants tiny seeds of doubt, unrest, and anxiety in each viewer, allowing their personal fears and worries to bubble up to the surface. As a parent, the effect was devastating. I instantly identified with both Laura and her husband, as well as with the opposing emotions each character developed as the story plowed along. By the time Laura unraveled the mystery of her childhood orphanage, I was tense, anxious, and thoroughly unsettled. Bayona had carefully manipulated me into a place of dread and discomfort -- not through blatant jolts, but through solid filmmaking, careful scripting, and excellent pacing.
While ’The Orphanage’ didn’t redefine horror, it did manage to worm its way under my skin and rattle my usually calm demeanor. After yawning at genre flick after genre flick over the last few years, I thought I was growing immune to the gags and geysers of the typical horror film. Apparently, I just needed a classy return-to-form to remind me how vulnerable I actually am.
New Line is out for blood. After wowing me with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (despite a minor application of DNR), I had high expectations for ‘The Orphanage.’ I’m happy to report that I’m exceedingly pleased with the results. Presented with a striking 1080p/VC-1 transfer, the film’s subdued palette is nevertheless bold and powerful on this Blu-ray release. Black levels are inky, contrast is spot on, and even the deepest shadows absorb light naturally without falling victim to crush. It’s the transfer’s fine object detail, however, that vaults this release to the next level. Pores, blemishes, hair, and the coarse texture of the ghostly sackcloth masks have been rendered with precision and care.
As for the purists out there who’ve complained about New Line’s use of DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) on their previous Blu-ray releases, you’ll find the film still has a fine veneer of grain that, as best I can tell, has not been diluted. Rest assured, as soon as I can get my hands on the AVC-encoded Spanish import, I’ll make a direct comparison and determine whether DNR has been applied. For the rest of us, the high-def picture blows the standard DVD out of the water. While the DVD has a decent picture as far as DVD releases are concerned, the Blu-ray transfer is sharper, more vibrant, and far more stable.
Alas, I did find two minor problems with the transfer that distracted me from its otherwise flawless presentation. Infrequent bits of banding and light edge enhancement appeared throughout the film to remind me that a studio rarely gets everything right. You’ll notice both eyesores anytime the camera pulls back to focus on a building set against an expanse of bright sky. Admittedly, only viewers with large screens will be bothered by either of these anomalies, but I will reiterate my position that edge enhancement has no business on a high definition release.
Like the 5-star audio package included on ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ New Line once again proves its commitment to high definition by giving us a glimpse of the future. This Blu-ray edition of ‘The Orphanage’ features a stunning Spanish-language DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 7.1 surround track that quite simply raises the bar for high-def audio. Realistic and naturalistic from titles to credits, the soundfield relies on thunderous LFE support and aggressive rear channel presence to craft convincing, three-dimensional soundscapes. Interior acoustics are as eerie as they come -- the hair on the back of my neck was constantly reacting to the whispers and noises haunting the edges of the soundfield. Better still, exterior shots are filled with subtle, environmental details that enhance the tone of the story without cluttering the front channels.
On the technical front, pans are transparent, directionality is precise, and treble tones are crystal clear. Low-end extension heightens the ominous undertones of the score and undergirds dialogue to ensure each element has genuine weight in the soundfield. Last but not least, dialogue is crisp and nicely prioritized -- perhaps it helped that I was reading subtitles, but I don’t recall any time when a line was overwhelmed by the rest of the soundscape. All in all, this DTS HD MA track does everything it should with unflinching perfection. I don’t have a single nitpick with the mix and it’s easily an early contender for Best Audio of 2008.
’The Orphanage’ arrives on Blu-ray with the same special features found on its regular DVD counterpart. However, compared to other hefty New Line Blu-ray releases, this one is fairly light on content and merely presents its features in standard definition.
’The Orphanage’ is a disquieting psychological thriller that delivers horror the way it was meant to be experienced. It doesn’t redefine its genre, but it tells a genuinely creepy story that will unsettle most viewers. This is another excellent Blu-ray release from New Line that should excite film fans. ‘The Orphanage’ features a gorgeous video transfer, a revolutionary DTS HD MA audio track, and a decent collection of supplements. This is an easy release to recommend and one that any horror fan should consider.