"The Orphanage" (released as "El Orfanato" in its native Spain) comfortably joins the ranks of 2001's "The Others
" and 2005's "Dark Water
" as one of the superior cinematic ghost stories of this decade. Going above and beyond the empty-headed, boo-laden trappings that plague many films within the genrefor a recent example of how not to make one, look no further than 2007's "The Messengers
""The Orphanage" is first and foremost a weighty, at times heartbreaking, existential study of the frailty of life, the mysteries of death, and the knowledge of one's own mortality. It is also very, very scaryboy, is it scarybut the frights go much deeper than the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night variety, and actually are there to service the story rather than the other way around.
Laura (Belén Rueda) and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have just moved with 7-year-old adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) to the long-abandoned seaside orphanage that she stayed at as a child. Their goal is to offer a spacious and loving home for special needs children, something near and dear to their heart as they themselves struggle to come to terms with Simón's illness (he is HIV-positive). As Laura and Carlos grapple with telling him about his condition, Simón learns the truth himself through a new group of imaginary friends he meets in a nearby cove. When he suddenly goes missing without a trace and Laura, distraught over the disappearance, starts hearing eerie sounds within the house, she begins to consider the possibility that Simón's friends weren't a figment of his imagination after all.
"The Orphanage" is being touted as the new film from director Guillermo Del Toro, a sneaky marketing ploy to reel in the same audience won over by his own 2006 hit, "Pan's Labyrinth
." While fans of that adult fantasy will surely appreciate what "The Orphanage" has to offer, in actuality Del Toro merely produces while fresh new filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona takes the helm. What Bayona has crafted is nothing short of entrancing, a rapturously gripping and superbly taut horror film that garners a lot of its lingering effectiveness through its story of a desperate woman who refuses to accept the loss of a child while doing everything in her power to locate his whereabouts. In doing so, she little by little is forced into considering the limitless possibilities of life (a different realm of life, but still a life) proceeding death. Further thought-provoking themes emerge, too, including the not always ideal actions people sometimes take toward others and the regret and guilt that go along with not being afforded the chance to do things differently.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona keeps a tight-fisted grip on the revelatory, multilayered narrative, in full control over the emotions he elicits at any given moment. Drenched in threatening moodiness and an unshakable sense of impending despair, the picture's human element nonetheless is not overpowered by these things. Still, one cannot deny how chilling the production is. By retaining a subtle tone up until the slightly too on-the-nose final minute or two, comparatively innocuous moments, such as the loose flapping of a shed door, a masquerade party, and the image of a small figure standing before an enveloping cave in the distance, take on an off-kilter and jittery life of their own. More obvious attempts at shocks, such as the grisly aftermath of an auto accident or the slamming of a closet door by a possibly otherworldly force, are additionally so expertly achieved that they feel new again.
In virtually every scene, Belén Rueda is mesmerizing as Laura, never playing the emotions too broadly while rawly emanating from every look given and piece of dialogue spoken the sheer tragedy befalling a woman who sees the life she has built for herself crumbling down around her. As young Simón, Roger Príncep is a fine child actor, natural and touching in his relationship with mother Laura; when he exits before the midway point, the viewer feels his loss and, along with Laura, actively yearns to uncover what has happened to him. Also memorable is Geraldine Chaplin (2005's "BloodRayne
"), who steals her screen time in the colorful supporting role of a medium called upon to investigate the supernatural presence Laura insists is in their home.
Hauntingly shot by Óscar Faura, every frame composed with the precision of a photograph, "The Orphanage" is a distinctly affecting psychological drama that also works splendidly as a shiver-inducing horror tale. The oceanside setting (complete with rocky cliffs, sandy beaches and a lighthouse) and the desolate title location are characters unto themselves, drawing the strong-willed but fallible Laura into an ever-terrifying web that may provide her with answers she is not prepared to learn. Movies such as "The Orphanage" do not frequently come around, and they should be applauded for what they achieve. One minute the viewer may be shrinking down in their seat or startled with a jump, and the next he or she might be fighting off the urge to shed a tear. It's fun to be scared, especially when a film has the mind and intelligence to back it up.