Starring Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep
Directed by J.A. Bayona
Rated R (with English subtitles)
The Orphanage creeps into American multiplexes with an endorsement from Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro, but it doesn't really need one. It's an effective, desperately unsettling ghost story that shows Hollywood how a horror movie should be done.
Above all, The Orphanage proves that it doesn't take a whole load of CGI or a histrionic music score to create an atmosphere of psychological terror. Less is more.
Simon (Roger Príncep) is a cute 7-year-old boy with an even cuter mom (Laura, played by Belen Rueda). Simon, Laura, and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) move into an old dark house that used to be Laura's orphanage when she was a girl.
Now it's creaky, foreboding, and beset by thunderstorms.
As is customary, things go bump in the night.
Simon is adopted, and he gets lonely while he waits for his parents to reopen the orphanage and bring in some new kids with special needs. Like a lot of bored, friendless sprogs, Simon invents some imaginary chums — or are they the ghosts of past orphans?
The movie revolves around Rueda's performance as she goes from loving mother to tortured soul when her son goes missing at the orphanage's re-opening party.
Is a mysterious, hatchet-wielding old lady responsible? Is it the specter of Tomas, a deformed little boy who was shut away in the house? Or is Laura going loopy?
Rueda's excellent. She evokes the weariness of a put-upon parent and a whiff of psychosis without losing the sympathy of the audience.
Cayo is equally believable as Carlos, the family pragmatist. When Laura invites a medium into the house, Carlos refuses to acknowledge the eerie voices of the children they hear. He's the down-to-earth type whose reasoning fails to track down Simon. Laura's only choice is to take the medium's advice and go beyond reason, exploring the ethereal instead.
So far, so derivative — there are shades of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Poltergeist, and del Toro's own orphanage ghost tale, The Devil's Backbone. There's also a nice homage to 1963's The Haunting when something crawls into bed beside Laura — and it ain't her husband.
Fortunately, this film doesn't just rehash its predecessors to deliver its frights. It adds new twists, it's beautifully shot, and it's told with an obvious love for the genre that's obviously lacking in standard U.S. examples. There's only one dump-in-your-drawers shock in the movie. The rest is a subtle exercise in tension and utter creepiness.
This kind of film only works if the audience cares about the main characters. It's a credit to the actors and first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona that the distraught parents' plight is always engrossing.
One particularly effective scene takes place outside the orphanage, in a meeting for bereaved moms and dads who've glimpsed their children long after death. The supporting cast and the look of the film build a sense of realism that makes the supernatural elements easier to swallow.
By tapping into our too-real fears of losing a loved one, The Orphanage becomes more than a series of frights. It can be charming and poignant as well. Although there are Spanish subtitles, these rarely distract from the flow of a film that relies on rich visuals to propel its narrative.
Its flaws lie in its attempts to compete with Hollywood: The music is occasionally overblown, there's a clichéd underwater dream sequence, and the use of a deformed child as a way to perturb the audience isn't exactly PC.
But these minor missteps never detract from the film's scary, emotionally gripping atmosphere, making it required viewing for mainstream horror directors and discerning film fans alike.