Remember last year when Guillermo del Toro briefly made subtitled movies cool with Pan’s Labyrinth? Well, The Orphanage—Spain’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film—ought to make them cool once again. Generally, movies that are promoted on the strength of their connection to a filmmaker who didn’t actually make them aren’t a good bet. Think about all those movies that trade on Wes Craven’s name (not that Craven’s own work has been exactly exemplary of late) and you’ll know what I mean. However, this feature-film debut of director Juan Antonio Bayona fully deserves the endorsement of a “Guillermo del Toro presents” title. In many ways it’s likely to remind del Toro fans of The Devil’s Backbone (2001), but it’s a far more effective—and far less political—ghost story.
The film has been likened to Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), and this isn’t a bad fit, but Bayona has a more aggressive style than Amenábar and mixes the creepy atmosphere he generates with truly jarring—but intelligently contrived and applied—shock effects. In other words, he’s crafted a ghost story (partly psychological) that plays more like a flat-out horror film. And yet it goes even further in a direction not generally associated with the horror genre: It’s wrapped around characters and a story that make it fully as moving as it is unsettling.
It’s also a film that requires the viewer to pay close attention to the details. A second viewing will reveal that The Orphanage carefully—and fairly, from a mystery aspect—conveys everything you need to know as the story unfolds. In fact, the key to so much of what happens—as well as the single most important line of dialogue—is found in the film’s brief pre-credit sequence, so watch carefully.
At its simplest, Bayona’s film tells the story of Laura (Belén Rueda in one of the year’s best performances), who along with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and their adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep), move into the disused orphanage from which Laura was adopted as a young child. They have plans to reopen the facility for children with special needs. Simon himself has special needs, being HIV positive, and a special affinity for “imaginary friends.” This last becomes more than slightly troubling when he meets a new friend, Tomás, in a cave by the sea—especially as evidence mounts that Tomás may not be imaginary.
With the arrival of Tomás—and a disconcerting self-proclaimed social worker with the inapt name of Benigna (Montserrat Carulla)—things change. Simon discovers—or is told—that he’s adopted and that he’s ill, causing him to become unruly and even morbid. Things come to a head at a truly strange party being held for potential candidates for the new facility. Laura loses track of Simon at the party and is attacked by a strange child with a sack over his head—the image of Simon’s drawing of Tomás, and also that of a scarecrow in the pre-credit sequence. As her hysteria mounts, it becomes clear that Simon has actually disappeared. No amount of searching finds him, even after Laura chances upon Benigna and, through the police, learns of Benigna’s real connection to the orphanage. Laura’s obsessive search—including bringing in a spirit medium (a terrific turn from Geraldine Chapin)—and her refusal to believe that Simon is dead uncovers many secrets (some of which may have been in the recesses of her mind all along), including the grisly fate of the children who were at the orphanage with her. All of this leads to an ending that’s as heartbreaking as it is chilling.
Not everything about the film is perfect. There are definitely a few plot holes, and some of the movie’s borrowings are a little dubious (Friday the 13th Part II???). But Bayona’s handling of the material more than compensates—with the exception of an unnecessary tag scene cribbed from William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980).
One of the best aspects of Bayona’s approach is that it’s rarely flashy for its own sake. Consider the spellbinding cinematic quality of the early scene where Laura and Simon play a game with “the spirits.” The sequence builds and builds in complexity and intensity (helped by Fernando Velázquez’ brilliant musical score), but there’s no big horrific payoff. Yet in the overall scheme of the film, it’s a huge, pivotal moment that becomes clear later on, and as such it deserves the presentation. Complex, layered and creepy as hell, The Orphanage is the kind of movie that reminds horror fans why they became hooked on the genre in the first place. Rated R for some disturbing content.