Bone chilling terrors with a hint of the fantastic await audiences who dare to enter The Orphanage. Produced by Guillermo Del Toro, The Orphanage continues the tradition the filmmaker started with films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, by showing the darker sides of humanity through frightening fantasies. In many ways Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has applied Del Toro’s own winning formula to The Orphanage and has made the most flawless film of this lineage.
Moving back to the orphanage where she grew up, Laura and her husband Carlos plan to reopen the property as a home for mentally handicapped children. The gorgeous old house seems too good to be true, and it is. Her son Simon starts telling his parents of an “imaginary” friend, Tomas. Ignoring Simon’s claims as merely childhood banter, the parents continue in their work, readying the house. Supernatural disturbances and a maniacal old woman start to disturb the family, resulting in the sudden and traumatic disappearance of Simon. Desperate and panicked, both Laura and Carlos must look within themselves, and confront the beings that haunt the orphanage, if they are ever to see their son again.
A commentary on faith and love, Bayona uses the thrills and troubling chills of The Orphanage to create a powerful message. Using the disappearance of Simon as the catalyst for showing the devotion of a mother’s love, Laura plays a stark contrast to her husband’s practical interpretation of their harrowing situation. While Carlos would rather believe that there is a logical answer to unlocking this mystery, Laura explores more otherworldly options.
Her knowledge of the orphanage and the solitary pain that her missing child must be going through makes her a prime vessel to confront the ghastly creatures from beyond, and answer the dark questions that De Toro and Bayona dare to ask. Like last year’s Oscar front runner, Pan’s Labyrinth, Bayona mixes a bit of the fantastical into The Orphanage. Allusions to legendary fables, such as the overt Peter Pan reference, combined with the staple fantasy images, help The Orphanage rise above the average horror romp.
With only the faintest bit of gore, The Orphanage accomplishes its scares methodically, using the somber atmosphere to give audiences goosebumps. The creaky old mansion appears far more menacing at night, and Bayona makes use of incredible sound mixing to keep viewers on edge as the protagonist explores the dark unknown.
Pairing the producer’s innate knowledge of the cinematic language of horror with the raw and untested talents of a first time director paid off brilliantly. There is a sense of restraint when it comes to the scares in The Orphanage that many veteran filmmakers have failed to approach. Bayona lets the frights build subconsciously, making each one far more effective when unleashed. In fact, few cinematic moments rival The Orphanage for sheer terror as when Laura turns to a group of ghost hunters to help solve their specter problem.
Helping to increase the tense atmosphere is stellar production design and gorgeous cinematography. While there may be no fauns or pale men lurking in The Orphanage, the design of Tomas alone is sure to give off its fair share of shivers. Belen Rueda is equally stunning in her performance as Laura. The actress lends credibility to the phantasmagorical happenings, capturing our sympathy as a fully rounded character. We follow her as a mother and a victim, and we can only pray that her faith will reunite her with Simon.
Heading to American shores nearly one year after the stunning domestic success of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage should appeal to an equally wide audience. While longtime, art house, Del Toro fiends will certainly be please with the dramatic arc of the picture, the strong horror element and shocking ending should make the film easily translatable for all viewers, despite the language barrier. One thing is for sure, with The Orphanage we have adopted another truly talented Spanish filmmaker, and Juan Antonio Bayona is a director to watch.