While American film studios are wasting money and intelligence on remaking Asian horror movies instead of nurturing any proprietary creativity, a small group of Spanish filmmakers have quietly taken the horror genre into sensitive and atmospheric places. Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others", the various fantasy-horrors of Guillermo Del Toro such as "The Devil's Backbone" and even "Pan's Labyrinth" and now Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage"- all subtle and highly creative efforts that have found a small cult following and even mainstream distribution. "The Orphanage" is the latest and perhaps the best of this group. Not only is it an increasingly creepy haunted house tale full of mood and delicately balanced scares, but like del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" it strikes a genuinely emotional tone as the harsh realities of modern life intersect with the mysterious affairs of the afterlife.
Starring Belen Reuda as Laura, she returns to the orphanage where she lived as a young girl before adoption to set up a school for mentally challenged children with her husband (Fernando Cayo ) and young son, Simone (Roger Princep). Its not long before Simone is talking of invisible friends which may or may not be the reason for his sudden disappearance one sunny afternoon. As the frustration and inability to turn up any clues mounts with Laura after nine months, she turns to a local team of paranormal investigators (led by Geraldine Chaplin) who uncover a dark secret about the orphanage. Unable to leave the orphanage, Laura gives herself two days alone to figure out the secrets of the sprawling property.
There are two scenes in "The Orphanage" that rank with some of the best moments of on-screen dread since the psychological horrors of Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The first, dealing with the appearance of a young boy with a straw sack over his head (who may or may not be the ghost of a deformed child) plays out in a surreal manner as he slowly walks down the hallway towards Laura and eventually lashes out in violent ways. The second, dealing with the paranormal investigation on the property, exhibit mood and fear through perfect camera placement and sound editing. The silences are almost as frightening as the unnerving sounds that eventually come through the audio devices planted strategically around the orphanage. It's to the credit of director Bayona that he's able to sustain such an involving narrative throughout, especially since the genre relies so faithfully on jumps and scares. Directors like Bayona and the others mentioned here create intimate stories first, then carefully construct the thrills later to support the story. Horror films often fail when they contrive the scare first and emotional involvement later. Why do we care who lives and who dies? With "The Orphanage", we certainly care about who's alive and who's dead, and the lines of mortality are blurred. Not to mention the fact that the main character, Laura, is suffering from an illness and emotional strain (the loss of her son) that's certainly clouding her judgement. Director Bayone modulates everything with intensity and pulls off something special. Don't let this one get lost in the post-Holiday shuffle. It's best seen in a movie theater with the sound up and the lights way, way down.
The following review and others can be read at Talking Moviezzz.