CAPSULE: Juan Antonio Bayona's Spanish-language film THE ORPHANAGE is a very intense ghost story, expertly filmed, but the writing lets down the rest of the film. There are bits from several successful horror films, especially POLTERGEIST, rehashed here. Guillermo del Toro's name is shown prominently as presenter and producer, but THE ORPHANAGE is really not in his class. The film is competently made, but it just does not have enough that will not be already familiar to the viewer. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In the 1960s and 1970s Mexican and Spanish horror films built a reputation for tackiness. Last year PAN'S LABYRINTH demonstrated that that era has passed and that some of the best current horror films are being done in the Spanish language. The new horror film THE ORPHANAGE, a Mexican-Spanish co-production, is produced and "presented" by the director of PAN'S LABYRINTH, Guillermo del Toro. That connection was probably played up because it inspires hope that it would be a film in the same class as PAN'S LABYRINTH. Sadly, while it is a technically well-made horror film with a good feeling of tension, the premise is too complex and it just lacks the originality that last year's film had. There are bits from several successful horror films, including THE SHINING, THE HAUNTING, LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, THE INNOCENTS, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and especially POLTERGEIST. The film has dark hidden secrets of the past, a haunted house, a deformed and masked spirit, menacing ghost children, a magic lighthouse, a connection to a familiar fantasy story, and too much else in one story. The very complexity of the mixture works against the potency of the horror. It is a little hard for a viewer to feel fear when he has to think out how the thing that is threatening fits into the overall story.
Laura (played by Belén Rueda) was raised in an orphanage. As an adult she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have adopted an orphan Simón (Roger Príncep), and are starting their own orphanage, having purchased the building that housed the orphanage of Laura's youth. The previously abandoned building is on the Spanish coast near an abandoned lighthouse. Soon strange things start happening. There are odd noises at night. Simón claims to have invisible friends, but they may not be imaginary. Complicating matters, a strange little social worker shows up on their doorstep unannounced and seems to be taking an unusual interest in the couple's plans. A strange child seems to be haunting the house wearing a mask made from a cloth sack. But things go from bad to tragic when Simón disappears without a trace for months. Laura is convinced he is alive and somehow near at hand.
Laura's grief feels very real and Rueda turns in a very fine performance. Her extreme anxiety over losing her son (perhaps literally losing rather than having the closure of having him die) has her trying several increasingly desperate approaches to try to try finding him. In a small role Geraldine Chaplin plays a Spanish medium.
In most aspects this film is very well made. It is the sort of edge-of-the-set supernatural thriller that is hypnotic. The art direction is beautifully executed. With a mostly blue-gray pallet the films casts a moody spell. But the script really lets the rest of the film down. The story of what happened at the orphanage is needlessly melodramatic and also needlessly convoluted. But the real horror of the modern horror film is that too many of these films, like cannibals, feed off of previous horror films. Guillermo del Toro has shown he can break out from that cycle, but scriptwriter Sergio Sánchez has not. THE ORPHANAGE might well have been better off promoted without the references to Guillermo del Toro. That connection makes promises that script could not fulfill. I would rate THE ORPHANAGE a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0464141/combined
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper