Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep
Rated: R for some disturbing content.
Parental Notes: This is not a child-friendly film, on several counts. For one, it’s subtitled. For another, it is very creepy, with the ghosts or corpses of dead children featuring prominently in many scenes, and one graphic car accident scene. This film deserves its R rating and is not at all for kids. Teenagers who can appreciate foreign cinema and love spooky films will likely enjoy it.
Guillermo del Toro has made a name for himself with films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone” as a teller of tales equal parts fairy and scary. The latest film to come out with his name on it is not one of his own productions — he was a heavily-involved producer and “presents” the film, according to the opening titles — but it has a strong flavor of his work. “The Orphanage” (released in Spain as “El Orfanato”) is the feature film debut of Juan Antonio Bayona, and it is a very effective atmospheric horror story for filmgoers that have long attention spans. If you can handle subtitles and are looking for something scary but not a gore-fest like the “Hostel” films, this may be right up your alley.
Laura (Belén Rueda), her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and their son Simón (Roger Príncep) move into an old building which was once the orphanage where Laura spent her childhood. Laura and Carlos plan to turn the building into a home for special-needs children and are renovating the old structure. There are hints of creepiness here and there, but they are mostly a creakily turning merry-go-round and the settling noises old buildings make. At least, until young Simón asks if his newest imaginary friend, whom he met in a cave on the beach nearby, can come home with him to play.
The setting is beautiful, shot in rich sepia and gray tones. The house is old and imposing, and the nearby beach is made up of crashing waves and unforgiving, sharp rocks. There are moments when the background music is a bit heavy-handed, but for the most part the opening scenes are atmospheric and unsettling in a quiet way.
As opening day for the special-needs kids home approaches, strange things begin to happen. An old woman identifying herself as a social worker comes by asking about Simón, who is (unbeknownst to him) adopted and ill. The woman is later discovered making noise in an old shed with a shovel, but runs off when Laura confronts her. Simón now has more invisible friends, and he goes on a treasure hunt with his mother, insisting that his invisible friends set up the game and becoming hysterical when his mother won’t believe him.
Then, during the opening day party for the home, Simón abruptly disappears. Was he kidnapped by the social worker? Has he run off to be with his invisible friends? As time passes with no sign of Simón, Carlos suggests that they leave the empty orphanage and try to move on with their lives. Laura is having none of it, however, and insists on staying to examine every nook and cranny of the house and grounds until she finds out what happened to their son.
The film is told through Laura’s eyes, and as the scenes pass she becomes more and more unreliable. She sees, or thinks she sees, the ghosts of her playmates from her days at the orphanage. Are they the playmates Simón talked about? Are they there to warn Laura, or to punish her for leaving them behind all those years ago when she was adopted? Are they even real? Laura is a desperate woman, after all, and might be imagining it all.
Audiences will need a long attention span to enjoy “The Orphanage” — most of its scenes are spent in a state of suspense, particularly once Bayona shows us what he is capable of in a gruesome scene that made even this jaded movie reviewer jump and gasp. Every time we follow Laura into danger, it’s impossible not to wonder if she will meet a similarly horrifying fate.
For a feature film debut, “The Orphanage” is an astonishing film. Fans of suspenseful horror and ghost stories told with a real sense of fear must not miss it. Fans of slasher flicks and other gorno fests are best advised to skip it, as it will likely bore them to tears. It should definitely be seen in a group, if only so you have friends to pick it over with after watching. There are many questions left unanswered as the end credits roll, and they make the film even more effective.