THE ORPHANAGE (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)
It’s safe to say that, before Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish horror (and its Mexican counterpart) were reserved for the famed Paul Naschy and his old school ilk. It was all religious symbolism and mannered moralizing. But thanks to the bigger picture boos presented by this cinematic NeoWave (which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a whole new world of artistic innovation has opened. It’s been a real entertainment epiphany. Del Toro has even moved into the role of mentor, guiding the work of others into the movie mainstream. Thanks to his vision and approach, we now have the magnificent movie The Orphanage. Combining classic haunted house motifs with a real sense of sentiment, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has delivered a stunning work of wonder. It signals the continued influence of the Hispanic aesthetic on the frequently failing fright flick.
It’s been several decades since Laura has been back to the place of her childhood - a rundown foster home that holds some decidedly mixed memories for the now middle-aged mother. She’s returned to buy the place and start her own special needs school, and she’s brought along her doctor husband and her own adopted son. While the building has a tragic history, Laura hopes she can bring a little light back to the space. Within the first couple of weeks, young Simon seems preoccupied and distant. While prone to having imaginary friends, he’s suddenly developed a flock of them. And where he used to be open and honest, he’s now secretive and aloof. As plans draw near for the facility’s Grand Opening, Laura seems haunted by a spectral old woman. This creepy visage visits the home, breaks into the property’s shed, and more or less makes a nuisance of herself. Then someone disappears. Struck by the loss, Laura must investigate the awful crone, as well as decipher where her loved one could have gone to. Suddenly, the horrid past of the orphanage comes into full view, and in order for our heroine to survive, she must face the untold terrors within.
Bolstered by cinematic atmosphere so ripe you can practically pick it and eat it, The Orphanage is a deliriously delicious creep out. Directed with substantial style and a fabulous flare for the moody by Spanish whiz Juan Antonio Bayona, this is appealing adult fantasy at its most enlightened. Similar to witnessing a motion picture marriage between Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro (who produced this incredible effort), the insidious tale of a foul foster home and the haunted legacy it carries is a major triumph of instinct and imagination. Bayona and his collaborator Sergio Sanchez aren’t covering new ground here. All countries have their haunted house stories, from the demonic dwellings of Italy to the spooked sanitariums of New Zealand. But The Orphanage strives to do something different. It wants to impart a clear emotional core to the film, to make all loss - be it simple or supernatural - become part of the character’s personal concerns. Thanks to some amazing performances, a gorgeously Gothic setting, a flawless sense of dread, and various artful ‘X’ factors, what we wind up with is a true terror classic, the kind of film that will only build in reputation and respect as the years pass.
It’s intriguing to see how Bayona formulates his fear. The Orphanage has bows to many macabre symbols, from the little child in the face-covering burlap sack (recalling all hooded fiends) to the moments where the paranormal parks itself directly in the path of reality (you name the ‘parallel truth’ motion picture). Requiring an endemic narrative to achieve these aims, the director gets incredibly lucky here. Sanchez sets up not one, or two, but three intriguing plot threads. We have the contemporary tale of modern family Laura, Carlos, and their adopted son Simon. The young boy’s secret (he’s sick, and this review won’t spoil the reveal as to the nature of his disease) meshed against his mother’s memories of this mysterious mansion have a centered, present-day appeal. We feel for these people and understand their desire for a better life. This echoes the issues in the flashbacks. We learn that Laura lived during a time when the orphanage suffered a scandalous setback - several students were poisoned by a vengeful teacher, and their deaths meant the end of the hospice. That this woman suddenly thrusts herself back into Laura’s life many years later is just the first sign that things here won’t be smooth sailing.
Then there’s the main mystery. Without ruining the plot, it involves an interfamilial fight, the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend, the development of a spirit ‘game’, and the eventual disappearance of someone close to Laura’s heart. All of this plays out in jigsaw puzzle plausibility, pieces falling into place with evocative regularity. As he builds his story, Bayona evokes his producer, as well as the similarly styled works of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Indeed, The Orphanage is often the most Italian looking Spanish horror film ever made. Some could call it an overall European conceit, but the fact remains that overwhelming homes with hidden secrets have long been a favorite of the Mediterranean masters. Toss in some sly dark humor, a dash of epic eeriness (the costal locale with its menacing lighthouse and shoreline play a crucial role), and some stellar performances, and you have a film that tunnels its way directly into your subconscious and begins to do battle.
Special kudos have to go out to Belen Rueda. As Laura, whose loss is further complicated by he own slipping grip on reality, she gives an incredibly soulful turn. When she’s wandering helpless through a group of potential clients, their handicapped children lost within an insular world of thoughts and troubles, the analogy is plastered all over the actress’s fragile face. As little Simon, Roger Princep avoids child actor precociousness to really get to the heart of his character’s individual concerns. He doesn’t respond well to the move, and his desire to make his imaginary friends happy has a fiendish, Exorcist like quality to it. Even Geraldine Chaplin has an amazing cameo moment when her supposed psychic powers are truly put to the test. The rest of the cast is wonderfully potent, especially the problematic Mabel Rivera (as Pilar) who frequently resembles an insane corpse. As the reason for all the paranormal portents, she makes an icky effigy. In fact, everything about Bayona’s visual style screams scary. From the tumble down home to the often hazy horizon, we appear to have stumbled directly into a ghostly gateway.
Thankfully, Bayona and Sanchez avoid easy answers and formulaic finishes. The Orphanage is a wonderfully complex thriller that gets more and more insidious as the ending unfolds. There is more to this mystery than a whodunit and why. Instead, we get the evils of the past visited on those outside the initial foul fray, and restless spirits imposing their undead will on those arrogant enough to live among them. It all adds up to one of the best genre endings in recent years, a sad if celebratory resolution that gives us closure, comfort, and a healthy dose of the creeps. Comparisons to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth are totally appropriate. In Bayona’s mind, not all stories end with ‘happily ever after’. Sometimes, you have to suffer greatly to achieve a state of grace. Under such a philosophy, this movie was tortured from the opening frames to the final credits. It’s so elegant and exceptional that it must be the byproduct of something very bad. While it may be nothing more than a Hispanic phase of the already fading spook showing, The Orphanage stands apart. It’s as timeless as it is terrifying.