The 2007 Spanish film The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is my nomination for best/scariest horror film of the decade and I dare you to find a better one.
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by Guillermo Del Toro (director of the incomparable Pan’s Labyrinth), the film tells the story of a couple and their adopted son. They return to the orphanage where the wife spent happy years of her childhood to renovate it as a house for special needs children. Their plans to help other people’s children are compromised when their own child goes missing. The search for their child uncovers unspeakable horrors that were buried in the orphanage for years.
If you’ve seen it, you know how layered and thrilling the story is. If you haven’t, I don’t want to ruin any of the reveals. The film is touchingly acted and you feel the mother’s pain and loss in every frame. This is not a gory, in your-face horror film. Rather, the secrets of the orphanage are uncovered slowly. But it’s so masterful that after watching this film I lay awake haunted by the sights and sounds until finally I took a sleeping pill to knock myself out because it was making me crazy. Days later I was still considering what was real or imagined.
I thought maybe I was just being a baby so I recommended the film to my friend and after watching it she emailed me back,
“what the hell? I watched the orphanage on my computer last night. I know you said it was freaky, but that movie is messed up! [plot spoilers...] I do like the movie though, except that I hate it and it is going to keep me up for the next week and a half. The fact that I’m still working through it and thinking about it after watching is always an indicator of a good film for me. So, I do not feel like you adequately prepared me for the freakiness.”