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The Orphanage

Old School Horror Done Right

Produced by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy), directed by first-time helmer Juan Antonio Bayona and written by Sergio G. Sánchez, The Orphanage ("El Orfanato") is a classic, old school haunted house tale that, while short on shocks and gore, is every bit as effective, if not more so, as the new school horror films that emphasize blood and gore over character or storytelling.

Taking their cues from a more literary era in the horror genre, Bayona and Sánchez, like del Toro before them with Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, produce a creepily effective, incredibly moving film that’s less about supernatural ghosts than the personal ghosts that linger on as a result of traumatic loss and the grief, regret, and guilt that inevitably follow.

Laura (Belén Rueda), along with her doctor-husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and their seven-year old son, Simón (Roger Príncep), moves back to her childhood home, a long-abandoned orphanage. Laura still has fond memories of her friends and caretakers she left behind. Now, thirty years later, Laura wants to give back, by converting the orphanage into a home for children with special needs. Post-renovation, the orphanage is ready to accept new boarders, but Simón, an only child, is unhappy with having to share his parents with other children. When Simón, already trailing two imaginary friends with him, Watson and Pepe, makes a third imaginary friend, Tomas, Laura and Carlos see it as just another plea for attention. But then Simón disappears.

The police investigation ends inconclusively, reporters move on to the next tragedy, but Laura can't accept that Simón is, in fact, dead and begins to believe that a malevolent force, perhaps a ghost or ghosts, perhaps something else, has kidnapped Simón. With inexplicable phenomena seemingly haunting the orphanage, Laura turns to a medium, Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin), who brings along a support crew armed with audio and video equipment to record Aurora's experiences.

Ever the rationalist, Carlos calls in a local psychiatrist, Pilar (Mabel Rivera), for help, but the increasingly obsessive Laura rejects Pilar's aid and begins digging into the orphanage's past for clues that might lead her to Simón or at least the answers she's desperately hoping she doesn't learn.

Bayona and Sánchez have cited Jack Clayton's The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Robert Wise's adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting as influences. The Orphanage also borrows story and visual elements from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (e.g. long tracking shots), Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (e.g. the medium, the audio and video equipment), Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (e.g. a shared premise), and Guillermo del Toro's Spanish Civil War fantasy-horror films, The Devil's Backbone (e.g. the orphanage, secrets, and possibly, murder) and Pan's Labyrinth (e.g. the isolated setting, ghost children, the retreat into fantasy, a double-ending that leaves ample room for interpretation).

With so many easy-to-spot influences, it’s hard to argue that The Orphanage is particularly original or innovative. To be fair, though, it took Sánchez all of seven years before he was able to get his screenplay made. During that time, Alejandro Amenábar wrote and directed The Others and del Toro did the same for The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. If, however, originality isn’t a reason to recommend The Orphanage, then Bayona’s classically unobtrusive direction, with a heavy emphasis on smooth tracking shots and fluid traveling shots, Sánchez’s script, which emphasizes character and perfectly timed, non-gratuitous revelations, and Belén Rueda’s controlled performance as a mother experiencing her worst nightmare, should.

And as much as originality is a plus, regardless of genre, so are polished direction, scripting and performances. In just his first feature-length film, Bayona has proven himself capable of creating suspenseful set pieces that don’t rely on cheap scares, but just as importantly, he doesn’t sacrifice character building for shocks or gore, instead preferring moviegoers to identify and sympathize with Laura as her exploration of the mystery surrounding the orphanage’s past takes her, inevitably, on a life-altering emotional journey.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars