Dir: Juan Antonio Bayona. Sp. 2007. 105mins.
Executive-produced by Guillermo del Toro, currently riding the wave of international success with Pan’s Labyrinth, this first feature from Juan Antonio Bayona is an excellent exercise in the Spanish-language subdivision of the horror-ghost genre that Del Toro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) more or less single-handedly invented.
While The Orphanage does not, of course, reach the glorious heights of Pan’s Labyrinth (few films of any genre do), it clearly shows that Del Toro’s effort to train a new generation of Spanish cineastes is bearing fruit. The film will be released by Picturehouse in the US and should do well, both theatrically and on DVD, around the world.
Laura (Rueda, from The Sea Inside), along with her husband Carlos (Caya) and their young son Simon (Princep), return to the abandoned orphanage where Laura lived for some years as a child, in order to set up a home for disabled children.
Almost from their arrival at the former orphanage, however, things begin to go bump in the night, and loudly suggest that there is unfinished psychic and psychological work to be done in that troubled space.
At first, The Orphanage is a bit clunky and conventional, with an over-large helping of the usual inexplicable slamming of doors and quick glimpses of ghostly personages that aren’t supposed to be there, along with the de rigueur rain, thunder, and heavy, foreboding music. All of this foreplay, as it were, lasts maybe a little bit longer than it does in standard genre fare, and than it should - but the wait is worth it.
Before long, the action ramps up and the film transcends its genre, as the best ones always do, to become a powerful, full-scale exploration of motherly obsession with her offspring, in this case, Laura’s unhealthy devotion to Simon, who, we learn, is adopted and has an incurable disease.
After we begin to hear about Simon’s imaginary friends, followed by a visit by a strange woman posing as a social worker, things begin to move very quickly.
It does not hurt that Simon is adorably cute, and that Rueda is a skilled actress, able to suggest an immensely wide range of emotions, some of which (purposely) veer off into the over-the-top and the very creepy.
It is this pushing of the envelope, in fact, that sets off The Orphanage from so many much lamer generic forebears. It also helps that Bayona is a born story-teller and a master at manipulating mise-en-scene and props, especially the otherworldly dolls that appear throughout the film.
The highpoint, perhaps, is the seance performed after Simon’s disappearance by the wonderfully creepy and campy Geraldine Chaplin.
Production companies/backers: Rodar y Rodar Cine y Television, Telecinco Cinema
Producers: Mar Targarona, Joaquin Padro, Alvaro Augustin
International sales: Wild Bunch
Screenplay: Sergio G Sanchez
Cinematography: Oscar Saura
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Music: Fernando Velazquez
Main cast: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Geraldine Chaplin