Memorial Day weekend seemed like as good a time as any to make some progress on the Netflix queue, in the form of a style-over-substance double feature.
In one of the special features for The Orphanage, executive producer Guillermo del Toro describes a couple of scenes as “pure cinema.” He’s talking about the scenes without dialogue that work just on the basis of some really creepy visuals, but he could just as well be describing the whole movie.
Because The Orphanage could only work as a movie, and it does so surprisingly well. It relies on suspense instead of cheap scares — except for one shot involving an ambulance, which works because it’s timed perfectly — but any of the suspenseful scenes, taken out of context, would just seem silly. Its plot is an almost insultingly simple and straightforward ghost story, but the movie knows exactly how much emphasis to give to the plot and how much to give to the psychological drama. And the drama would turn into overwrought or cloying melodrama without the performance of the lead actress, and the careful way scenes are staged and filmed.
You’ll frequently see it compared to The Others and Pan’s Labyrinth, but that’s not just a case of lazy movie reviewing, comparing it to the only other Spanish-made horror-like movies that Americans have heard of. It exists squarely between those two: it’s a better movie than The Others, with more depth and without the need for a twist ending, but with a very similar look, a similar premise (a mother trapped in a cavernous, haunted house), and an “old-school” ghost story mentality.
And it’s not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth, but thematically it’s extremely similar. I wish that they were more similar: there are scenes where the mother is playing with her son that are just wonderful, but they’re quickly relegated to being plot points, instead of reminders of what it’s like to think like a child. And they tacked on two completely unnecessary short scenes at the end of the movie (and flashbacks during the climax) to explain everything; I wish they’d stuck with the ambiguously happy ending of Pan’s Labyrinth.
People who get paid to review movies frequently toss around the term “dream-like,” and I’d use that here, but in a different context: it’s like the kind of dream that feels so vivid and meaningful right as you wake up, but the second you try to explain it or even remember the details, it seems trite and meaningless. I really enjoyed The Orphanage an awful lot, and everything it tried to do — from horror to drama to joyful “childlike wonder” moments — totally worked for me up until the end. But I’m wary of thinking about it too much, because I’m afraid it’ll evaporate.
Snatch, on the other hand, is just plain bullshit. I don’t even like calling it style over substance, since it’s been less than eight years and already there’s no style left. It’s an hour and a half being assaulted by a jackass who believes he’s a hell of a lot cooler and smarter than he is. I can’t remember the last time I’ve wanted so much to physically smack the smug dumb-ass expression off of a movie.
And I’m really tired of seeing movies that prove Quentin Tarantino knows what he’s doing, and how awful it is when some tone-deaf person tries to do the same thing. Hey, why don’t you spin the camera around one more time, cool guy? That is what we in the movie business call style, man, that shit never gets old.