Horror films with an elegant touch are fast becoming a Spanish movie tradition, as witness The Devil’s Backbone, directed in Spain by Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, and the Nicole Kidman starrer The Others, from Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. The Orphanage, the Spanish entry for this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, is a proud addition to this mini-trend, with an executive-producer boost from del Toro himself, creator of last year’s triple Oscar winner, Pan’s Labyrinth.
Debuting feature director Juan Antonio Bayona and first-time feature writer Sergio G. Sánchez have fashioned a chiller with direct echoes of The Others, along with debts to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It’s refreshing in this era of sledgehammer tactics to see a supernatural tale that earns its scares without insulting the audience’s intellect, through atmospheric mise-en-scène, psychological character development and sheer visual élan.
Belén Rueda (The Sea Inside) plays Laura, a woman returning to the seaside orphanage she left some 30 years earlier, with plans to reopen the abandoned building as a home for disabled children in partnership with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo). The couple have their own seven-year-old adopted son, Simón (Roger Princep), an intense kid who finds solace in a pair of imaginary playmates.
Soon after moving in, Simón makes a new, unseen friend, Tomás, while exploring the nearby caves, and his circle of invisible companions eventually expands to six. Laura’s uneasiness about her son grows when he leads her into an elaborate game of unearthing clues that hint there may indeed be something otherworldly happening at the old orphanage. Her strained relationship with Simón reaches its breaking point during the opening party for the restored children’s center, when the boy runs off and disappears without a trace. In the midst of her panic, Laura has her own frightening encounter that convinces her a mysterious evil has taken root in her childhood home.
When six months pass with no sign of Simón, Laura enlists the services of a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) to confirm her fears that her boy’s fate is somehow tied to a supernatural presence. The distraught mother’s investigation takes her deeper and deeper into hidden corners of the orphanage and its dark past.
Bayona has invested much of the film’s success in his leading lady, and Rueda rewards him with an alternately vulnerable and tough, emotionally raw and riveting performance. Onscreen for most of the running time, she offers a combination of class, intelligence, passion and wild intensity, never once condescending to a sometimes maligned genre. The other standout here is Chaplin, who is eerily persuasive as she explores the house while in a trance, spied by a night-vision camera.
Graduating from shorts, commercials and music-videos, Bayona proves himself a most stylish director. Though the film largely takes place on or near the orphanage grounds, the imagery is never repetitive. Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura fill the wide screen with dramatically varied perspectives of the vast manor house, and editor Elena Ruiz and sound designer Oriol Tarrago conspire to keep the suspense high. The carefully parceled shock effects are all the more effective set against such a diamond-sharp backdrop.
Children’s games run throughout The Orphanage, and children dominate the startling conclusion. But this dark variation on Peter Pan is without a doubt a ghost story intended for adults who like a little intelligence and flair to accompany those things that go bump in the night.