J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) shares the distinction with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) of being one of those very rare films that crossed the subtitle barrier to become generally popular with both horror and art film fans. The del Toro brand—he served as executive producer and rated a “presents” title—no doubt helped, and there’s something of the del Toro feel about Bayona’s extremely creepy ghost story. For that matter, there’s something of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) about it. But when all is said and done, Bayona’s film is much more straightforward in its horror than Amenábar’s, and much more plot-driven than del Toro’s. There are several mysteries at the heart of The Orphanage—and on a single viewing, chances are you won’t beat the film to the punch. It’s one of those films where the delight of a second viewing comes from seeing just how clearly all the elements of the mystery are given, but without the filmmaker ever telegraphing their importance. The overall story—a couple moves into an old orphanage (once home to the wife) with their HIV-positive adopted son, only to seemingly lose him to his new “imaginary” friend when he disappears at an open-house party for the disabled children they plan on taking in. As a plot, this is no more than serviceable. But Bayona uses the situation to build the film to a fever pitch, with the tension and the stakes ratcheted up at every turn—including one incredibly jarring shock effect, and perhaps the most unsettling séance ever committed to film. It’s perhaps too new to call The Orphanage a classic, but I suspect it’ll be around long enough to get there.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Orphanage on Thursday, May 17, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.