The phrase “Presented by Guillermo del Toro” on the advertising for The Orphanage is obviously intended to draw in the crowds wowed by the director’s Oscar-nominated hit Pan’s Labyrinth. While it does share an interest in the imagination of children and uses an orphanage as the centre of the action like another of his films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), The Orphanage is a far more straight-forward affair. As a ghostly thriller with plenty of hair-raising moments as director Bayona presents the eerie goings on in the life of a mother who becomes convinced ghost children have kidnapped her son it is effective — he just drifts too close to being overly generic by the time the events shuffle into place via the closing twist.
Married mother-of-one Laura (Belen Rueda) stayed at an orphanage as a child and has returned to the now disused site with the intention of re-opening it to children in need of a home. A labour of love for her, husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) is supportive of the move to the isolated location, however they worry their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) has too many imaginary friends for his age and hope the arrival of real children will mean he no longer needs to make up characters to play with. Just before the opening party, Simon and Laura’s exploration of nearby beachside caves leads to Simon meeting a new seemingly imaginary friend who he invites back to the orphanage to play with. When an elderly woman shows up at the orphanage threatening to reveal secrets about Simon’s past to the boy, things start going bump in the night for Laura and a strange child in a mask appears before Simon goes missing. It’s not long before Laura’s exploration of the orphanage’s past suggests malevolent spirits have taken her son away.
The moment a former orphan appears in a disfigured clown-like sack mask to confront Laura, Bayona stays one step ahead of the audience.
Before Simon’s disappearance, The Orphanage uses the old maxim of historic buildings being quirky and having hidden secrets to give the indication all is not well. Creaky doors, odd noises and Simon’s invisible friends provide a knowing wink that bad things are ahead. Then, the moment a former orphan appears in a disfigured clown-like sack mask to confront Laura, Bayona stays one step ahead of the audience as Laura calls in the police and then a medium to try to discover why a group of children would take Simon away from her. There are plenty of jumps, a _Most Haunted_-esque sequence as the medium is followed around the house by a series of video cameras trying to make contact with the ‘other side’ and a tense build up to the inevitable twist which may well have you squeezing the arms of your chair. The disappointment comes in the revelation that, though clever enough to make you smile and think “Oh, of course!”, also makes you feel a little cheated by using a variation of a common trick to wrap up proceedings.
The old saying goes that there are a finite number of stories to tell so they have to be presented and told in unique ways to appear different. The Orphanage is exactly that: a movie so entrenched in the ghostly thriller sub-genre that comparisons are impossible to ignore, yet its accomplished approach and style make it stand out from the crowd. Elements from as varied films such as Hollywood heavyweights The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001), Japanese favourites Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002) and The Eye (Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang, 2002) and the more bland Calista Flockhart vehicle Fragile (Jaume Balaguero, 2005) can easily be identified, so if you’ve seen any or even all of them, don’t expect The Orphanage to pack many surprises beyond it’s accomplished style; those (if any) who haven’t seen any will no doubt be engrossed. For Bayona, the backing of Del Toro may prove to be vital for his career as he will be winning fans for his carefully meticulous attention to detail on show here which will hopefully be put to even better use on his next project.
AKA El Orfanato.