Spain has recently emerged as one of the most important European countries for film productions. It’s no coincidence that Spain is tied with Germany as the nation that has won the most foreign language Oscars this decade. The Spanish film industry has produced such great cinematic talents as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Alejandro Amenábar, and of course the great Pedro Almodóvar. Spain is also a frequent stomping ground for the great Mexican genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who choose to make his recent crossover hit Pan’s Labyrinth in Spain. Now Guillermo del Toro, acting as a producer, has made a film with a man who could well end up on the same level as the aforementioned filmmakers: Juan Antonio Bayona.
The film is set in an old abandoned orphanage on the coast of Spain and centers on a woman named Laura (Belén Rueda) who was briefly raised at this orphanage and now wants to restore it. Laura is raising an adopted child named Simón (Roger Príncep) with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and soon plans to bring a new set of children to be raised at the orphanage. As Laura prepares to re-open the orphanage, Simón begins to tell her about a number of imaginary friends he’s made, who she dismisses as the result of loneliness and boredom. But Simón continues to act increasingly strange until finally he disappears in one of the film’s most intense scenes. Distraught, Laura begins to explore what happened to Simón and begin examining the supernatural as a possibility, she continues on a search that leads her to uncover the Orphanage’s grizzly history and the frightening secrets within.
The Orphanage is by no means the most original film you’ll see this year, in fact several of its features will be quite familiar. The story at first feels like a take on The Sixth Sense, before it becomes something more along the lines of The Haunting. Like many other ghost stories the film uses creepy children to freak the audience out, and it also has a scene with a psychic medium straight out of Poltergiest. Additionally Bayona seems to idolize del Toro a little too much as the setting is very reminiscent of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, and the ending (though very good) feels a bit too close to Pan’s Labyrinth for comfort. However, it is in the way that these familiar elements are so perfectly brought together and perfectly executed that makes The Orphanage such an effective thriller, it’s as if they took every play from the ghost story playbook and brought them all together in just the right order.
I’m generally unimpressed by horror films because they all too frequently fail to actually scare me. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been scared by a movie, not even by classics like The Exorcist. I’m not trying to sound like some kind of tough guy, in fact I’m the first to admit that I’m a complete coward whenever it comes to real life situations, just never when it comes to movies. Though I’ve never found myself “scared,” every once in a while one will get under my skin and make me shiver; further, I do react to suspense, tension and the occasional cheap jump scene. As such, The Orphanage is like the perfect horror film for me; this is filled with great atmosphere and manages to build the tension perfectly, than has something jump out at you at just the right moment.
This is a film with no discernable CGI, at least none related to the moments that are supposed to scare you, and it also as almost no gore. This flies in the face of even the best horror movies coming out of Hollywood (or anywhere else for that matter) recently. Even the (few) major successes of the genre lately have either had to resort to gore (The Decent), or CGI (The Ring), but not The Orphanage. This is a film that relies almost entirely on traditional techniques to provide scares, namely disturbing imagery and straight up suspense. It takes a real stroke of brilliance to be able to get so much suspense out of a door closing.
The major selling point here is the suspense and the scares, but these are backed up by a strong, if not overly original, story. Part of the movie’s brilliance is that it actually provides the main character with a plausible reason not to simply get the hell out of the haunted orphanage while she still has a chance, namely that she is trying to find her son, who she believes has been kidnapped by the ghosts present in the orphanage. The Laura character and her desperation really shine through here, thanks in part to Belén Rueda’s great performance. I also really liked how the script managed to set things up in an unobtrusive way and bring them back later on. However, this script does fall back on cliché a bit more than I had hoped from a Guillermo del Toro production. This is not really the first time we’ve seen any of elements on display here, it’s just that they’re rarely all done this well in a single movie.
It’s ultimately this lack of true originality that just keeps The Orphanage from being something truly great, which is unfortunate because this really could have been the ultimate ghost story. However, that should not diminish the fact that this is a very solid thriller that deserves to be seen on the large screen where its atmosphere and tension can really play out. I’m very excited to see what first time director Juan Antonio Bayona does next, as this is a truly solid debut. I’m inclined to wonder what Bayona could have done if he had made 1408, which was probably the more original haunting film made this year, but it wasn’t nearly as tense or downright freaky as this. If the best elements of both films had come together that would really make one hell of a ghost story.
***1/2 out of four